Felix Mendelssohn

Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Felix Mendelssohn was one of the most popular composers of his time. He was also one of the few musical prodigies whose youthful ability could rival Mozart’s. The grandson of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, young Felix grew up in a home that welcomed as guests many of the most learned people of his day. He took piano, violin, and singing lessons as a youth. By the age of eight he was studying composition, and was producing remarkably assured works by his teens, including the Octet at age 16 and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream at 17. Mendelssohn was a key figure in resurrecting the reputation of Johann Sebastian Bach, leading the St. Matthew Passion (the first performance the work had enjoyed since Bach’s death in 1750) in a now-famous 1829 concert. He subsequently held conducting posts in Düsseldorf and Berlin. But much of his later life was spent in Leipzig, where he directed the Gewandhaus Orchestra and founded the esteemed Leipzig Conservatory.

String Symphony No. 2 in D major

Composed: 1821
Duration: 11 minutes
Instrumentation: strings

In 1819, the ten-year-old Mendelssohn began studying theory and composition with renowned teacher Karl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832). Mendelssohn had already shown great musical promise, but Zelter wanted to make sure that the young composer had a solid foundation in the music of the past, in particular that of Bach, Handel, and Mozart. During his years of study with Zelter, Mendelssohn wrote a set of thirteen string symphonies that sometimes evoke those earlier composers but also indicate what a prodigy Mendelssohn was — perhaps as great as Mozart — as well as give a glimpse of the musical genius-in-the-making. The Mendelssohn family home in Berlin was a prominent gathering spot for musicians, and it is likely that Mendelssohn had a chance to hear early compositions like the String Symphonies performed there by local musician friends. The Symphonies were long thought to be lost, but in 1950 they were rediscovered in the State Library of East Berlin.

The first movement of the String Symphony No. 2 is for the most part energetic and propulsive, with only brief moments of relaxation. One can sense the young Mendelssohn stretching his musical talents in the sparkling textures and occasional passing dissonances. Along with the Mozart-like Classical style, there are hints of Bach in the melodic lines, both here and especially in the stately, solemn, minor key Andante, with its flowing counterpoint. The energy picks up again for the sprightly third movement, which toward the end takes a brief dramatic turn into the minor before the affirmative ending.

— Chris Morrison

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