xxxxxThe talented German composer Felix Mendelssohn was regarded highly throughout Europe, and especially in England. Whilst his music was generally classical in style, his lyrical expression and his choice of subject matter made him one of Europe’s first great romantic composers. He spent much of his career in Leipzig, helping to make it the music capital of Germany, but, as a brilliant pianist and conductor, he also travelled extensively on the continent and paid ten visits to England. A child prodigy, he wrote five symphonies, much organ and choral music, concertos for piano and violin, and the oratorios St. Paul and Elijah. Today he is best remembered for his incidental music, especially his Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1826, and his Fingal’s Cave, completed in 1831. As a child, he met Goethe, and later in his career came to know Chopin and Weber and championed the works of Schubert and Schumann.


(G3c, G4, W4, Va)


Mendelssohn: watercolour miniature by the British artist James Warren Childe (1780-1862), 1829. Fingal’s Cave: detail, by Thomas Moran (1837-1926), 1884, an American painter of the River Hudson School. Fanny: by German painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800-1882),1842. Weber: by the English portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), 1814 – Musée Bonnat, Bayonne, France. Boieldieu: after the French artist Henri-François Riesener (1767-1828), c1815 – National Library of France, Paris.

xxxxxThe German conductor and pianist Felix Mendelssohn was one of the most popular and acclaimed composers of the 19th century, particularly in England. Whilst his music in general had all the hallmarks of classicism - being conformist, lyrical, charming and elegant - it served to illustrate, nonetheless, subjects which were charged with Romantic imagery, feeling and imagination. In this respect two of his works are particularly well known - his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1826, and his Hebrides Overture produced five years later.

xxxxxHe composed his overture to Shakespeare’s comedy when he was only 17. He wrote to his sister Fanny in 1826 saying that he was going into the garden “today or tomorrow to dream there the Midsummer Night’s Dream”. It was first performed in Stettin the following year, but the remainder of the incidental music - which included the famous “Wedding March” - did not appear until 1842, produced for a stage production which took place at Potsdam some months later. His Hebrides Overture, or Fingal’s Cave as it came to be known, was inspired by a visit to the Inner Hebrides in 1829. Having witnessed the sea pounding against the huge cave on the island of Staffa (see illustration below), we are told that he scribbled down the opening bars of this powerful, evocative work the moment he returned to his lodgings.

xxxxxMendelssohn was born in Hamburg, the son of a banker and the grandson of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. A child protégé, at the age of nine he gave his first public performance as a pianist at a chamber concert in Berlin, and he was producing his own compositions two years later. By 1825 he had written a piano quartet, an octet for strings, twelve symphonies for strings, and a short opera entitled Camacho’s Wedding, produced at his family’s expense. Some of these early works number among his finest. In later life he spent a considerable amount of time as a teacher, pianist and conductor - together with the extensive travelling this involved - but he was nonetheless a prolific composer. Apart from his five symphonies, all rich in harmony and including his Italian, Reformation and Scottish, he produced a quantity of fine choral music and organ sonatas, preludes and fugues, and he is especially remembered for his two oratorios, St. Paul in 1836, and Elijah ten years later, both of which were influenced by those of Handel. His eight volumes of Songs Without Words for the piano, some composed by his sister Fanny, were produced over fifteen years, beginning in 1830. He also wrote concertos for piano and violin. Among the latter, his Violin Concerto in E Minor-Major of 1844, which took six years to complete, is regarded as one of his finest pieces, noted above all for the liveliness and warmth of its melody.

xxxxxMendelssohn was initially music director for the city of Dusseldorf, but from 1835 until his death he conducted concerts in the Gewandhaus (Draper’s Hall) in Leipzig and, by the standards he set, made that city the musical capital of Germany. However, in between these duties and composing, he travelled extensively in Europe, performing as conductor or pianist. He made no less than ten trips to England where, in his later years, he was the favourite composer of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, both of whom he met in 1843. He dedicated his Scottish symphony to the British monarch and, whilst on holiday in Scotland - during which he was taken to “Fingal’s Cave” - he visited the writer Sir Walter Scott in his home at Abbotsford.

xxxxxIn the early 1840s he was appointed musical director to Frederick William IV of Prussia at Berlin, and it was at this time that he founded the Leipzig Conservatory. Opened in April 1843, this gained a worldwide reputation as a music school, and attracted many foreign students, including the future outstanding composers Edvard Grieg and Frederick Delius. He came to know Frédéric Chopin whilst in Leipzig and, as conductor of the Gewandaus orchestra, he gave first performances of works by Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann. Early in his career he also visited Weimar, where he met and became a friend of the ageing Goethe. The young composer dedicated one of his piano quartets to the famous writer, and played him pieces by Bach and Mozart. Also among his acquaintances was the German romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber whom he met in the 1820s.

xxxxxBy the mid-1840s Mendelssohn’s health was beginning to fail, caused mainly by overwork. He visited England in August 1846 to conduct Elijah at the Birmingham Festival, but he returned a sick man. Then in May 1847 he learnt of the death of his beloved sister Fanny (illustrated), and this hastened his own demise. He went to Switzerland, but returned to Leipzig in the September and died two months later at the age of 38. What he achieved in so short a lifetime was indeed amazing. Quite apart from the quality, quantity and variety of his own output, he made a distinguished contribution as both a conductor and a pianist. And whilst he confined much of his music to strict classical form, yet he became, by his lyrical expression and his choice of subject matter, one of the first of Europe’s great romantic composers.

xxxxxIncidentally, Mendelssohn played an important part in reviving interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. On Good Friday 1829 he conducted a performance of his St. Matthew Passion, one hundred years after it was first performed, and for the first time since the German composer’s death in 1750. This did much to bring this particular work and his music in general to the notice of the public. ……

xxxxx…… It appears that the tradition of playing his “Wedding March” at bridal or recessional processions all began when the piece was played for the first time at the wedding of the Princess Royal (Victoria, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria) in 1858, long after Mendelssohn’s death. ……

xxxxx…… Mendelssohn married Cecile Jeanrenaud in 1837. The marriage was a happy one and they had five children, but when he died ten years later he was buried next to his sister Fanny in the churchyard of Holy Trinity in Berlin. The name “Bartholdy” is often added to his own name in memory of a wealthy uncle who passed his fortune on to the Mendelssohn family. ……

xxxxx…… As a conductor, Mendelssohn was one of the first to use a lightweight baton made of whalebone. The earliest known means of beating time goes back to the Sistine Chapel in the 15th century, when the conductor would often use a rolled up piece of paper. Later, in order to be heard above the noise of the orchestra, a heavy stick was employed. The French composer Jean Baptiste Lully, you might recall, used a hefty cane to beat the floor, but in 1687 hit his foot by mistake and died of the wound when it turned septic. Perhaps in memory of that event, when, on one occasion, Louis-Hector Berlioz and Mendelssohn met at Leipzig and exchanged batons, the French composer offered up a huge piece of lime tree still covered in its bark!


Carl Maria von Weber


xxxxxThe German composer Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) met Mendelssohn in the 1820s. Like him he was a child protégé both as a pianist and composer. He became conductor at the state theatre in Breslau at the age of 18, but his career really took off in 1813 when he was appointed conductor at the German theatre in Prague. Here he did much to champion the ideals of romanticism, and he continued to do so when he became director of the court opera at Dresden three years later. His two major operas, Der Freischutz (The Freeshooter) and Euryanthe, produced in the early 1820s, established the German romantic opera. He spent the last two years of his life writing the English opera Oberon, and he died in London soon after its premiere in April 1826. He wrote more than 250 compositions, and these included two symphonies, two piano concertos, two concertos for clarinet, two masses, and over 20 pieces for orchestra and solo instruments, including clarinet, violin, horn and bassoon. One of his best known works is his piano piece Invitation to the Dance, composed in 1819.

xxxxxThe German composer, pianist and conductor Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), knew Mendelssohn briefly in the 1820s. Like him, he was a child protégé both as a pianist and composer. He was born in Eutin, near Lübeck. and, because his father ran a small travelling theatre company, spent much of his childhood on the move. This disrupted his musical training as well as his general education. He stayed for short periods at Salzburg, Vienna, Munich and Stuttgart, and among his teachers at this time was the Austrian composer Michael Haydn, the brother of Joseph Haydn. He showed an early and exceptional talent as a pianist, and for a time, beginning in 1804, he served as the conductor at the state theatre in Breslau. However, it was not until 1810, when he settled for a while at Darmstadt, that he was able to take his musical studies more seriously. As a result, his works for clarinet and orchestra, produced the following year in Munich, revealed his promise as a composer. He was appointed conductor at the German theatre in Prague in 1813 and, three years later, following the success of his quintet for clarinet and strings, the King of Saxony appointed him director of the court opera at Dresden. It was here that, taking his duties very seriously, he did much to establish German national opera, despite opposition from the Italian traditionalists. At this period in particular, his writings as a music critic did much to champion the ideals of romanticism. In 1817 he married the opera singer Caroline Brandt, and embarked on an extensive concert tour as a pianist.

xxxxxThe year 1821 saw the Berlin production of his most famous opera Der Freischütz (The Freeshooter), a work based on German folklore and ghost legend. This was an enormous success, and he followed it with the equally imaginative Euryanthe, produced in Vienna two years later. In this he broke with tradition, replacing spoken dialogue by words sung to music. These two operas created the German romantic opera, and it was on the strength of these works that Covent Garden Theatre in London commissioned an opera in English. He worked on Oberon - a tale of medieval romance and magic - for the next two years, learning English to accomplish the task, and in 1826 travelled to London via Paris. The work, which contained some of his loveliest music, was well received at its premiere in April, but by June, after more concert performances, he was totally exhausted and suffering from consumption. Realising that his end was near, he decided to return home to his family, but died the night before his departure.

xxxxxQuite apart from his three major operas, Weber wrote more than 250 compositions, and these included two symphonies, two piano concertos, two concertos for clarinet, two masses, and over 20 pieces for orchestra and solo instruments. And in addition to his quintet for clarinet, he wrote works for the violin, cello, flute, horn and bassoon, and composed numerous songs. Among his piano music, his descriptive piece Invitation to the Dance of 1819 has remained a long-time favourite. All these works - and particularly his operas - made a fundamental contribution to the beginning of German Romanticism, and influenced, among others, the music of his fellow countryman Richard Wagner and the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.

xxxxxIncidentally, Weber, who was a cousin to Mozart’s wife Constanze, had a great love of and feeling for music. At one time he wrote:


What love is to man, music is to the arts and mankind, for it is actually

love itself, the purest, the most ethereal language of the emotions. ……

xxxxx…… During a short stay in Munich he spent some time learning the art of lithography with the Austrian engraver Alois Senefelder, the inventor of this printing technique. With his assistance he printed out his set of Variations for the Pianoforte. Later, while working at Breslau, he accidentally drank some acid used in lithography. This mishap damaged his voice and almost cost him his life. ……

xxxxx…… After his death in June 1826, Weber’s remains lay in a temporary grave at Moorfields, London, for 18 years, but in 1844 they were removed and placed in the family vault in Dresden. Wagner raised the money to have the remains taken back to Germany, and he made a moving speech at the ceremony.

xxxxxWorthyxof mention at this time is the French composer of comic opera François Adrien Boieldieu (1775-1834). His pleasing melodies and light orchestration proved very popular, and his masterpiece La Dame Blanche, based on stories by the English novelist Sir Walter Scott and produced in 1825, was performed well over a thousand times by the end of the century. An earlier success, his opera Le Calife de Bagdad of 1800 earned him the post of music director to Tsar Alexander I, an office he held at St. Petersburg for six years. On his return he was appointed director of music to Louis XVIII. He wrote 40 operas, and these included Ma tante Aurore of 1803, Jean de Paris of 1812, and Le Petit Chaperon rouge (Little Red Riding Hood) six years later. He also composed songs and music for the piano and harp.