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Music / Felix Mendelssohn

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Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (3 February 1809 – 4 November 1847) was an early German Romantic composer.

He wrote one of the two most famous pieces of wedding music ever, originally as incidental music for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Other well-known works include the Christmas carol "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "War March of the Priests," the concert overture The Hebrides (also known as Fingal's Cave), "Spring Song," and the Violin Concerto in E minor.

Outside of being a famous Romantic Era composer, Mendelssohn is also credited with kickstarting the Bach Revival, leading to the modern-day veneration and renown of J.S. Bach as a composer and music theorist.

Like several early Romantic Period composers (Franz Schubert, Fryderyk Chopin, Robert Schumann, Vincenzo Bellini, Carl Maria Von Weber), he died young, at age 38 after a series of strokes.

Tropes present in Mendelssohn's life and works:

  • Brother–Sister Team: Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn. Society being what it was, the female half of the team was not allowed to pursue her career to the full extent.
  • Cantata: His "Festgesang" cantata. It's also called the Gutenberg cantata because it celebrates Gutenberg's genius at inventing printing with movable type. He thought it'd never catch on, but it did (become a respected classic music piece). It even gets used in religious carols for Christmas!
  • Child Prodigy: Gave his first public concert at nine years old. Some of his finest compositions, such as the Octet in E-flat major, the "Overture" to A Midsummer Night's Dream, his first two string quartets, and a pair of concertos for two pianos and orchestra (not to mention 12 string symphonies) were written when Mendelssohn was 18 years old or younger.
  • Cool Big Sis: His older sister Fanny, a talented composer in her own right who was nonetheless discouraged from publishing her works due to her gender. She would often help critique his pieces while he, in turn, published a few of her works under his own name (which led to an incident where he had to admit to Queen Victoria that one of her favorite pieces of music was written by Fanny, not himself). The two were close, and after her death Felix would dedicate his last major work, the String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, to her memory.
  • Dramatic Timpani: In the "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" overture, the fast section ends with an Anti-Climax in which the orchestra drops out temporarily, but the timpani keeps going strong and sets the beat for the twice-as-slow coda.
  • Ear Worm: Mendelssohn did this to himself.
    "I should like to write a violin concerto for you next winter. One in E minor runs through my head, the beginning of which gives me no peace." — Mendelssohn to his childhood friend, violinist Ferdinand David.
  • Fading into the Next Song: The first movement of his Violin Concerto flows directly into the second by a sustained bassoon note.
  • Fanfare: "Wedding March" opens with a fanfare that is repeated at intervals, though the main body of the piece relies rather more heavily on strings than the other examples of this trope.
  • Lohengrin and Mendelssohn: Half-Trope Namer. His "Wedding March" from A Midsummer Night's Dream has long been a wedding recessional staple.
  • Older Is Better: Although a member of the Romantic tradition in music, Mendelssohn was rather conservative in his tastes and compositional style. This led him to champion older composers; he led a revival of the music of George Frederic Handel in Germany, and put on the first production of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in decades, leading to new appreciation of the Leipzig master.note  He also conducted the first performance of Franz Schubert's 9th Symphony, a decade after Schubert's death.
  • Preacher's Kid: Mendelssohn's wife, Cecile Jeanrenaud, was a clergyman's daughter.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Mendelssohn was baptised into the Christian faith, but he embraced it as he got older. He attended worship services of different churches, but his love for the music of Bach anchored him to Lutheranism. He also composed a number of sacred works, like two oratorios based on the lives of St. Paul and the prophet Elijah; the Lobgesang (or Symphony No. 2), a choral symphony that uses portions of the Bible as its text; and Symphony No. 5, also called the Reformation, which he composed in honour of the 300th anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession. He remained a committed Lutheran throughout his life, though he was also proud of his Jewish heritage.
  • Siamese Twin Songs: One of the most striking examples in which it is not the last two movements but the first two movements which lead straight into each other is found in his Violin Concerto. The coda of the first movement builds and builds in energy until finally the full orchestra finishes on a grim E minor chord. However, the first bassoon holds its note after the rest of the orchestra falls silent, leading directly into the slow movement.
  • Sibling Team: As noted above, him and Fanny were one.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: Mendelssohn (setting a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) uses the heroic variant of the trope in Die erste Walpurgisnacht, in which a community of pagans uses the trope-naming implements, in conjunction with truly epic choral music, to impersonate demons, thus frightening off their Christian oppressors, so they can worship in peace.
  • Travelogue Show: Or travelogue piece in this case. Mendelssohn wrote several such works, including his Symphony No. 3 in A minor ("Scottish"), Symphony No. 4 in A major ("Italian"), and the concert overture The Hebrides. The composer traveled extensively throughout Europe, and these pieces were inspired by his sojourns.

Notable Works which cite Mendelssohn or his works:

  • He is played by Otto Diamant in Lisztomania and by André Heller in the West German film Frühlingssinfonie (Spring Symphony).
  • "Athalia" (also called "War March of the Priests") is played on an Art Deco organ by the title character in the opening of The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
  • A snippet of the Violin Concerto is used to conclude Les Visiteurs and its first sequel.
  • As mentioned, the wedding music from A Midsummer Night's Dream is so widely used that it gets its own trope.