Felix Mendelssohn was, like Frederic Chopin, a composer who was cut down in the prime of his life. Chopin lived for thirty-nine years; Mendelssohn for thirty-eight. Born in 1819, the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, a philosopher and Jewish patriot, he was one of four children. His sister, Fanny, would become a pianist and composer, and the two younger children, Paul and Rebecka were also musical. The children were taught the piano by Ludwig Berger, who had been a student of Muzio Clementi, and Carl-Henning and Eduard Rietz were engaged to teach violin and viola. The most important influence on young Mendelssohn’s musical career was that of Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832), Director of Berlin’s Singakadamie.
Carl Zelter was instrumental in introducing Felix to composers Louis Spohr and Ferdinand Hiller and his family took him to Luigi Cherubini to ascertain if he was, indeed, talented enough to make a career composing. “He will do well,” Cherubini declared and the boy was given the blessing of the family to continue on his musical way.
Mendelssohn in London, England
He sailed from Hamburg on April 18, 1829, and apparently, the voyage was a very unpleasant one, with, in Mendelssohn’s own words, ‘contrary winds, dense fog, engine trouble and general malaise.’ The pianist Ignaz Moscheles met him upon his arrival in England and had lodgings ready for Felix. The musical circles in London were delighted to welcome the young musician and he had a wonderful time. He made his debut with the Philharmonic Society on May 25, when his First Symphony was presented to an appreciative audience.
The Scottish Highlands
July 13, 1829, found Felix again in concert, this time as a duo-pianist with Moscheles in his own Concerto for Two Pianos, and as conductor for his Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. His place in the musical society of London was assured and he thought of London as ‘ his second home.’ When the London season ended Felix traveled to the Scottish Highlands, where he heard melodies in his head that would manifest later into the ‘Scottish Symphony.’ He visited the black cavern of Fingal’s Cave and was so inspired that he immediately began to sketch what would become the Hebrides Overture.
The Lake District and Wales
More travel took place and he visited the Lake District of England and on to Wales, where he was the guest of a wealthy family, the Taylors, who lived near Chester. There were three daughters in the family and Mendelssohn was not immune to their feminine charms. It was here that he wrote three Fantasias or Caprices, which he dedicated to Susan, Anne and Honoria Taylor. Mendelssohn went on to become one of the foremost composers the world has seen.