Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, the son of a banker, Abraham, who was
himself the son of the famous Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn. Felix's
family, however, converted to Lutheranism, and moved to Berlin in 1812.
(Nazis would later cite his Jewish origin in banning his works and
destroying a memorial statue.) His sister was Fanny Mendelssohn (later Fanny
Hensel), who was a well-known pianist and amateur composer herself.
Mendelssohn began taking piano lessons from his mother when he was six,
and at seven was tutored by Marie Bigot in Paris. From 1817 he studied
composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter in Berlin. He probably made his first
public concert appearance at the age of nine, when he participated in a
chamber music concert. He was also a prolific composer as a child, and wrote
his first published work, a piano quartet, by the time he was thirteen. The
elderly Goethe met the young Mendelssohn and took quite a shine to him,
known to say to him, "When I am sad, come and cheer me with your playing."
As an adolescent, his works were performed at home with a private
orchestra for the elites and intellectuals of Berlin. Mendelssohn wrote his
first twelve symphonies in his early teens (more specifically, from ages
twelve to fourteen; these works were considered lost for over a century, but
are now played with regularity), growing with confidence until he wrote his
first symphony for full orchestra (and first acknowledged), his opus 11 in C
minor the year after; and at seventeen he wrote an overture to Shakespeare's
A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is probably the earliest well known
work by him (he later wrote more incidental music for the play). In 1827 he
saw the first production of one of his operas, Die Hochzeit des Camacho,
having written several others before then.
Mendelssohn brought the music of Johann Sebastian Bach to the public's
notice, from its position of relative obscurity at that time. In particular,
a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 1829 under
Mendelssohn's direction was a great success. This was the first performance
of the work since Bach's death and earned Mendelssohn an international
reputation at age twenty. Mendelssohn was also a major factor in the
recovery of Mozart's works, and his own music (like that of other composers
at the time) showed both Bach's and Mozart's influence.
Mendelssohn knew Hector Berlioz from their stay at the French arts
academy in Rome, Italy. They also met later in life in Germany. These
meetings are described in Berlioz's memoirs. Mendelssohn's personal life was
fairly conventional compared to many other composers of note. For instance,
his marriage to CÚcile Jeanrenaud in March of 1837 turned out to be a very
happy one. The couple also had five children. He performed as a pianist,
organist and conductor in Germany as well as in England where his music was
In 1835, he was appointed as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus
Orchestra. In 1846, the oratorio Elijah premiered in Birmingham. At
age thirty-eight, he founded the Leipzig Conservatory.
Mendelssohn suffered from bad health in the final years of his life, and
it is said he was greatly depressed by the death of his sister Fanny in May
1847. Felix Mendelssohn died later that same year after a series of strokes,
on November 4, 1847, in Leipzig. He is buried in the Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof
(Trinity Cemetery) I in Berlin-Kreuzberg.