Important composer in the romanticist style; b. Hamburg, Germany, Feb. 3, 1809; d. Leipzig, Nov. 4, 1847. Other given names were Jacob Ludwig, and he preferred the single surname Mendelssohn. Felix, a grandson of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, belonged to a wealthy, cultivated family, many of whose forebears had adopted Christianity in the generations before legal emancipation of German Jews in 1812. Yet his father, a deist, wrote Felix in 1829, "There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius. If Mendelssohn is your name you are ipso facto a Jew"—sentiments to which the Nazis would later subscribe all too heartily in banning Mendelssohn's "non-Aryan" music. Felix, however, along with his brother Paul and devoted sisters Fanny and Rebecca, became thoroughly, if somewhat ambivalently, assimilated into the German Protestant culture of the romanticist era, although his Jewish background occasionally created problems that had traumatic repercussions on his personality (otherwise admirably balanced) and ultimate historical position. Nevertheless his musical genius, versatility, personal charm, and unflagging industry carried him through a series of triumphs as pianist, violinist, conductor, administrator, gentleman of letters, artist, linguist, and "composer in royal service" to the kings of Saxony and Prussia. On intimate terms with Goethe, student (in aesthetics) under Hegel, favorite of Queen Victoria (he made ten tours of England), friend of Chopin, the Schumanns, and countless others of high eminence, he remained essentially the loving son, husband, and father, the ethical man in search of eternal values.
The Octet (Opus 20) composed at 16 and the Overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at 17 reveal a Mozartean fluency and grace that were yet of his own time. They hold a permanent place in the repertory, along with the Violin Concerto (1844), the "Hebrides" Overture, and the "Italian," "Scotch," and "Reformation" symphonies, as major achievements of a composer who, soon after his untimely death at 39, lost general favor, but is now the subject of widespread reappraisal.
Mendelssohn's consistent interest in religious music of the past (including Palestrina) inspired his celebrated performance at age 20, the first in modern times, of J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion (1829) and influenced numerous works of his own for both Protestant and Catholic liturgies. Among the latter are an early Tu es Petrus (1827), three motets for Trinità dei Monti in Rome (1830), and the important but neglected Lauda Sion (for the Eucharistic Congress at Liège, 1846). The oratorios St. Paul (1836) and Elijah (his masterpiece, 1846) have had notable influence on sacred choral style both in England and the U.S.
Bibliography: Letters, ed. g. selden-goth (New York 1945), see esp. those from Rome. s. hensel, Die Familie Mendelssohn, 1729–1847, 3 v. (Berlin 1879), rev. f. a. horst (Freiburg 1959), Eng. tr. c. klingmann, 2 v. (New York 1882). p. radcliffe, Mendelssohn (New York 1954). e. werner, Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, ed. f. blume (Kassel-Basel 1949– ) 9:59–98; Mendelssohn: A New Image of the Composer and His Age, tr. d. newlin (New York 1963), see also review by a. l. ringer, Musical Quarterly (New York 1915– ) 51 (1965) 419–425. p. m. young, Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. e. blom, 9 v. (5th ed. London 1954) 5:675–706. p. m. young, The Choral Tradition (New York 1962). p. h. lÁng, Music in Western Civilization (New York 1941). l. botstein, "Mendelssohn, Werner, and the Jews: A Final Word," Musical Quarterly 83 (1999) 45–50. j. a. bowen, "Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Wagner as Conductors: The Origins of the Ideal of 'Fidelity to the Composer,"' Performance Practice Review, 6 (1993) 77–81. j. garratt, "Mendelssohn's Babel: Romanticism and the Poetics of Translation," Music and Letters 8 (1999) 23–49. h. hoshino, "Mendelssohns geistliche Vokalmusik," Musik und Kirche 69 (1999) 31–41. h. kohlhase, "Studien zur Form in den Streichquartetten von Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy," Hamburger Jahrbuch für Musikwissenschaft 2 (1977) 75–104. f. krummacher, "Religiosität und Kunstcharakter Über Mendelssohns Oratorium Paulus, " Hamburger Jahrbuch für Musikwissenschaft 8 (1985) 97–117. s. d. linderman, "Mendelssohn and Moscheles: Two Composers, Two Pianos, Two Scores, One Concerto," Musical Quarterly 83 (1999) 51–74. m. p. steinberg, "Mendelssohn's Music and German-Jewish Culture: An Intervention," Musical Quarterly 83 (1999) 31–44.
[f. j. burkley]