Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany, on February 3, 1809, and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847. Following the Mendelssohn family’s conversion from Judaism to Lutheranism—the children in 1816, the father in 1822—the members of the family appended the second name of Bartholdy to their surname; accordingly, the composer often used the name Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Mendelssohn completed his Symphony No. 1 on March 31, 1824, and it received its first performance on November 14 of that year in Berlin, at a celebration of his sister Fanny’s birthday, with Mendelssohn himself conducting. These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances. When published, in 1834, the piece bore a dedication to the Philharmonic Society in London. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinet, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-seven minutes.
Felix Mendelssohn achieved absolute musical fluency at a young age. Robert Schumann, one of the most perspicacious music critics of Mendelssohn’s time, called him the “Mozart of the nineteenth century; the most brilliant among musicians.” When he was nine, Mendelssohn both gave his debut piano recital and heard one of his psalm settings performed by the highly regarded Berlin Singakademie. By the time he was twenty-one, he had been offered—and had turned down—the music professorship of the University of Berlin.
His talent was supported by privilege. He was born into a family that was both cultured and wealthy; his grandfather was the noted philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and his father, Abraham, was a very successful banker, one remembered at least for his remark that he was destined to go down in history “as his father’s son and his son’s father.” Young Felix, his gifted sister Fanny Cäcilie, and their younger siblings Rebekkah and Paul enjoyed certain advantages as they moved through their childhood. They hobnobbed with the rich and famous; Felix, for example, struck up a bizarrely intimate friendship with the aged author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who seemed never to tire of his young interlocutor’s boundless curiosity. Each of the Mendelssohn youngsters received a well-rounded education, with Felix mastering Classical and modern languages, writing poetry, and polishing his skills as a watercolor painter and an artist in pen-and-ink. Felix and Fanny profited from the finest music instruction that money could buy, with Felix studying both piano and violin in addition to taking composition lessons from Goethe’s music adviser Carl Friedrich Zelter, whose other students included Otto Nicolai, Carl Loewe, and Giacomo Meyerbeer. In a letter to Goethe, Zelter reported enthusiastically about the boy’s phenomenal accomplishments: “My Felix has entered upon his fifteenth year. He grows under my very eyes. His wonderful pianoforte playing I may consider as quite exceptional. He might also become a great violin player. . . . Imagine my joy, if we survive, to see the boy living in the fulfillment of all that his childhood gives promise of.”
One of the perks young Mendelssohn enjoyed was having a private orchestra at his disposal to try out his new compositions at the every-other-Sunday musicales that were instituted in 1822 at the family home in Berlin (the Mendelssohns having moved there from Hamburg in 1811). Many of the composer’s early works were unveiled at these gatherings, among them several of his twelve completed “sinfonias,” ebullient works that chart his progress toward increasing subtlety and refinement in manipulating orchestral forces. (These are often referred to as his “string symphonies,” although one of them includes a percussion section and another, initially written for strings alone, was then expanded for an orchestra with winds.) The last of the sinfonias was completed at the end of December 1823. Three months later Mendelssohn, who had recently turned fifteen, completed the first symphony he conceived from the outset for full orchestra, his Opus Symphony No. 1.
In the meantime, Zelter wrote to Goethe again about Mendelssohn’s progress, prompted by a complete performance of his pupil’s fourth opera, Die beiden Neffen, oder Der Onkel aus Boston (Nephews Both, or The Uncle from Boston), on February 3, 1824, its composer’s fifteenth birthday: “I cannot get over my astonishment at the enormous strides which this boy of fifteen makes. Novelty, beauty, individuality, originality, all alike are to be found in him,—genius, fluency, repose, harmony, completeness, dramatic power, and the solidity of an experienced hand. His instrumentation is interesting; not overpowering or fatiguing, and yet not mere accompaniment. The musicians like playing his music, and yet it is not exactly easy. Now and then a familiar idea comes and passes on again, not as if borrowed, but, on the contrary, fit and proper for its place.” Years later, Mendelssohn’s nephew Sebastian Hensel reported in his history of the Mendelssohn family that at the supper following that performance, Zelter declared: “My dear boy, from this day you are no longer an apprentice but a member of the brotherhood of musicians. I proclaim you independent in the name of Mozart, Haydn, and old father Bach.”
All three of those past masters had figured prominently in Mendelssohn’s studies. In fact, Mendelssohn had a direct connection of “musical ancestry” to each of them. His great aunt Sarah Itzig Levy had studied harpsichord with Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, and instigated a J.S. Bach cult at her home in Berlin. She was visited there by Mozart in 1789 and at some point by Haydn, whose biographer Georg August Griesinger presented her with the autograph of Haydn’s Heiligmesse—a treasure she would pass on to Felix. Still, when Zelter summoned up their names, he surely did so because they had been omnipresent in his teaching. He had learned the discipline of composition via time-honored methods that had already been in place in the late Baroque: figured bass, chorale harmonization, mastery of progressively complex counterpoint. He put Felix and Fanny through similar paces, with the music of “old father Bach” serving as the ultimate model. When it came to developing facility in a more modern style, he urged them to take Mozart and Haydn as their models, and a number of Felix’s earliest pieces relate to specific examples from the scores of those Classical archetypes.
Mozart and Bach cast long shadows over the piece at hand, but so do some composers who were more up to date, including Beethoven and Weber, both of whom were still alive when Mendelssohn produced this work. The blustery opening owes a lot to the Overture from Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, a pillar of early Romanticism that enraptured Europe following its premiere in 1821 in Berlin, in a production Mendelssohn certainly witnessed. From a structural point of view, however, the precocious fifteen-year-old lets the Viennese Classicists be his guide in this sonata-form movement, which exudes a sense of Mozartian equilibrium in the balance of its fierce opening theme with the elegant descending woodwind lines that soon follow. Indeed, Mendelssohn seems to be inspired here by one model before all others, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, a paragon of the “demonic” aspect of Mozart that was particularly admired by the nineteenth-century Romantics. We might think of the Andante as Haydnesque thanks to the hymn-like quality of its principal theme as well as its sophisticated tonal layout and its slow triple meter, which is a hallmark of many slow movements in Haydn’s Paris and London symphonies, although we would not mistake the piece for a Haydn composition. Mendelssohn provides an added tincture of chromatic richness in the harmonies, building an edifice of relatively up-to-date aspect on a foundation of sturdy Classicism.
The third movement, oddly set in 6/4 time, reworks some material Mendelssohn had already used in a viola sonata. It is marked Menuetto, a quaint throwback idea in 1824. We may take it as an overt tribute to the corresponding movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, which is also marked Menuetto but far oversteps the courtly politesse suggested when that dance is invoked. When we encounter such movements in symphonies, they always involve a minuet proper that surrounds a contrasting central section, known as the trio. Here the menuetto sections are very much in the stormy mode of Mozart’s Fortieth, but the sublime trio seems drawn from a different playbook. Leipzig’s Allgemeinische musikalische Zeitung (AMZ), reviewing an 1827 performance of the symphony, observed that “The Minuet is so obviously copied that Beethoven cannot be mistaken as its model.” But something original is going on here, too. We hear it especially in the imaginative transition Mendelssohn writes to steer his trio to the second go-round of the Menuetto, a mysterious, hovering passage in which timpani and basses add evocative sounds at the bottom of the texture. In 1829, Mendelssohn led this piece in London, and on that occasion he replaced this third movement with a marvelous orchestral arrangement of the Scherzo from his Octet for Strings. His friend Adolf Bernhard Marx reported: “It did not fit the character of the whole, but it seemed to him to be more attention-getting.”
Again to the AMZ: “The last movement, just as fiery, but much more restrained than the first, crowns the entire, glorious undertaking. Very original and highly effective is particularly a pizzicato movement”—a passage for plucked strings—“throughout whose repetition a single B-flat clarinet plays such an original melody that one feels very joyfully uplifted.” That passage is a complete change of pace after a blustery beginning that again is a descendant of Mozart’s Fortieth; it is as if Mozart is passing the baton to Berlioz. Mendelssohn then turns his attention to that which he could not bear to forego: fugue. He was terrifically skilled at fugal writing by this point in his life and could spin out counterpoint at great length—even too great a length, in some of the sinfonias. Here he limits himself to just a fugal exposition; but lest anyone should accuse him of sloth, it is the exposition of a double fugue, meaning that two distinct subjects unroll concurrently—no mean feat. Next, Mendelssohn goes back and repeats the movement as it has unrolled so far, at least in spirit, although in fact he inserts many alterations into the music, and he even rescores the unforgettable clarinet melody so that it is mostly doubled by flute. It is now time to finish, and one imagines Mendelssohn’s eye straying to yet another masterwork: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a piece that works its way through many chapters of C minor before erupting into C major brilliance for its conclusion. Mendelssohn tries the same thing, picking up the tempo at the moment when he shifts from minor to major. Mendelssohn’s First does not quite give Beethoven’s Fifth a run for its money in this sprint to the finish, but his riotous conclusion is indisputably fun.
—James M. Keller
More About the Music
Recordings: Claudio Abbado conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon) | Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) | Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca) | Andrew Litton conducting the Bergen Philharmonic (BIS)
Reading: Mendelssohn: A Life in Music, by R. Larry Todd (Oxford University Press) | A Portrait of Mendelssohn, by Clive Brown (Yale University Press) | The Mendelssohn Companion, edited by Douglas Seaton (Greenwood Press) | Mendelssohn Remembered, by Roger Nichols (London: Faber and Faber, 1997) | The Mendelssohn Family, 1729-1847, by Sebastian Hensel (Harper & Brothers)