Felix Mendelssohn was one of the most famous composers during the 19th century. Although in his music he did show some features of romanticism, he was strongly influenced by traditional genres such as counterpoint etc. In this essay, the biography of the composer, background of the genre and analysis of the piece will be investigated
Biographical Sketch of Mendelssohn
Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809. His father Abraham Mendelssohn was a banker, while his mum Lea Mendelssohn was a highly educated artist and musician. Mendelssohn first had his piano lesson from his mum, but soon he was sent to study with the best teachers at that time such as Marie Bigot and Ludwig Burger. He also took composition lessons with Karl Zelter, who was the professor of the University of Berlin. Under their proper guidance, he completely showed his music talent- he first appeared as pianist at nine and as a composer at ten. At his age of twelve, he already composed nine fugues, five symphonies for strings, two operas and a huge number of smaller pieces. When he was sixteen, the publication of his Octet in E-flat Major for strings and Overture to A Mid Summer Night’s Dream marked his full maturity.
In 1829, he left his hometown and started his music tour to Italy, France and England. During this period of time, he published many significant compositions, which included the overture Die Hebriden (1829), the Reformation Symphony (1830) and the Italian Symphony (1832) etc.
Besides composing, he also worked as a conductor in Düsseldorf (1833-35) and Leipzig (1835-40). And in 1843, he established a new conservatory in Leipzig. Up to this point, Mendelssohn was already a well-known pianist, composer and conductor.
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Another distinctive feature is the rising importance of the woodwind section. Before the 19th century, the string section played a main role in presenting the melody while woodwind instruments were only adopted to create some orchestral colors to the piece. However, the use of the woodwinds became very different during the 19th century that not only melodies were assigned to them, sometimes they were even accompanied by the strings (Ex 4):
Ex. 4 Rising importance of the woodwind in the orchestra
In a nutshell, the Italian Symphony does reflect the features of a 19th century orchestral piece. Most importantly, it totally demonstrates Mendelssohn’s mature composition style of combining both classical genres and romantic style together within a piece. This explains why he is regarded as one of the most important figures in the music history.
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