His times: Felix Mendelssohn was born into a privileged family at a time when creativity was in vogue: young, talented men were encouraged to travel and drink in the inspiration of foreign climes. Mendelssohn’s ‘grand tour’ prompted his links with the UK; he was a frequent visitor here (he had a particular penchant for Birmingham) and became well acquainted with society figures including Queen Victoria and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He was active during the flowering of the orchestral/conducting tradition, becoming synonymous with the Cotton Hall (‘Gewandhaus’) orchestra in Leipzig.
His music: Mendelssohn wedded a strict sense of Classical proportion and poise to a poetic Romanticism, which earned him the nickname ‘the Mozart of the nineteenth century’. He looked back beyond Mozart, too, notably to his compatriots Bach and Handel, whose music he studied, played and tirelessly championed. But Mendelssohn was every bit the Romantic, spontaneous and innovative, sucking up inspiration from literature, the visual arts and nature. His music is often impulsively gregarious and easily welcoming – one critic recently cited its sense of ‘fireside warmth’ – but for some it also lacks the discernable sense of struggle that came to characterize Romanticism in subsequent decades.
Himself: Mendelssohn is sometimes portrayed as the only major composer never to have experienced real human hardship. In truth he never found the life of a professional creative particularly easy. Towards the end of his tragically short life he was terribly overworked, which probably contributed, with the death of his beloved sister, to his untimely death from a short illness.