Mendelssohn, Bartholdy-Felix the first musical composer of-eminence who, since Bach and Handel bequeathed to the world their sacred harmonies, devoted his best efforts and great talents chiefly to sacred music. Felix was the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, the philosopher; his father was the eminent Jewish banker, Abraham Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who embraced the Christian religion and became a member of the Lutheran Church. Felix was born Feb. 3, 1809, at Hamburg. As a boy he displayed a wonderful talent for music, which attracted the attention of the poet Goethe, who warmly interested himself in Felix, and greatly encouraged him to develop that talent with which the Creator had so largely endowed him. Upon the removal of his parents to Berlin in 1812, his instruction in music was intrusted to Zelter and Berger, both masters in the are the former a profound musical theorist, and the latter a renowned pianist and teacher. It is not to be wondered at that; under the care and guidance of such masters, the progress of Felix in his musical studies more than fulfilled their expectations. At the age of nine we find him giving his first concert in Berlin, delighting the audience by his graceful performance on the piano. He now commenced to write musical compositions of every form. At the early age of sixteen, he composed his first opera, the music of which is not only charming, but full of dramatic element. This composition shows what Mendelssohn might have accomplished in operatic music had he not left this field for a higher and nobler one that of sacred music. Another proof of his dramatic power is in his music to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, which is regarded as one of his best efforts in dramatic music. In 1821 he composed his second opera, and finished one half of a third one, besides writing six symphonies, one quartette for the piano and stringed instruments, a cantata, six fugues, and a number of etudes, sonatas, and songs. At the age of twenty Mendelssohn visited England for the first time, and was there deeply influenced for the whole course of his afterlife. He arrived in London in 1829, and, being known by reputation to the most eminent musicians, was most cordially received. At the first concert with the Philharmonic Society, his overture to Midsummer Night's Dream was most enthusiastically received by those who had not even heard his name. In the same year Mendelssohn visited Scotland, and was warmly welcomed by literary and musical societies fully' able to appreciate his genius. He made an extended tour through the Highlands, being deeply impressed with the wild and romantic beauty of the old Caledonian music, which some years after gave rise to his celebrated Scotch symphony 'in A minor. His music to the Isles of Fingal also owes its origin to the impression made upon his mind by the wild and stormy shores of the Hebrides. In the following year he visited Italy, and two years afterwards Paris. Later he revisited London, and from that time to the end of his life was a frequent sojourner there. He began to be even more appreciated in England than in his native country, and it became to him, as it were, the land of his adoption. Benedict, in his life of Mendelssohn, says: "The mean cabals which were always at work against him in Berlin increased his dislike to that city, so much so as to induce him to leave it, as he then thought, forever." At Leipsic he accepted the conductorship of the celebrated Gewandhaus concerts, and remained there until 1844, when, induced by the invitation of the king of Prussia, he returned to Berlin.
His entrance upon his glorious career as a composer of sacred music may be ascribed to the committee of the Birmingham Festival, which called forth the oratorio of St. Paul for its festival of 1837. The impression which this composition made at Birmingham is described by those present as truly grand. In 1840 Mendelssohn composed his Hymn of Praise, written expressly for the Birmingham Festival, and performed under his direction. It is a work called a symphony cantata, of marvellous beauty. His third and last oratorio was also written, for Birmingham, and. although he commenced it in 1837, it was only finished in time for the festival of 1846, and during these nine years he bestowed upon it his greatest care and attention. The first performance of it took place Aug. 26, 1846, he being the conductor. The enthusiasm was unbounded, and it was universally pronounced his masterpiece, and the greatest oratorio since Handel brought out his Messiah.
Although king Frederick William IV bestowed the greatest honors upon Mendelssohn, and offered him every inducement to stay in Berlin, yet he preferred Leipsic, and it was mostly there and in England that he devoted his time to further everything noble and true in art. Mendelssohn was also a diligent scholar in philology, history, and other sciences. His Letters from Italy and Switzerland (translated from the German by lady Wallace, London, 1862) bear evidence of his superior attainments, and may be regarded as a fine literary production. In the selection of a text for his oratorios he was very exact, and to the careful student of sacred music it must be apparent that in Mendelssohn's compositions, founded upon a scriptural text, not only love of music as an art, but also a genuine spirit of piety is revealed. No one could give more true and deeply felt expression than he did in his music to such passages as these: "As the hart pants for cooling streams," "I waited for the Lord," "He, watching over Israel," '"It is enough," etc. By the student and lover of sacred music Mendelssohn must ever be regarded as a shining light. If not endowed with the genius of a Bach, Handel, Mozart, or Beethoven, the great talent, exquisite taste, and depth of feeling which he displayed in all his compositions will ever secure him a place among the first of masters. Riehl, in his Musikalische Karakterkopfe (i. 106), says, "Many thousands have, by the influence of Mendelssohn's music, been led to the study of the works of Bach and Handel, and enabled to form a more correct idea of their true and lasting value." Again, Riehl says (p. 101), "He made the severe forms of sacred music more elegant and more charming by uniting the formal part of it with a subjective wealth of feeling." In his private life he was a man of most charming disposition, making all who came in contact with him his ardent friends and admirers. Towards his fellow-artists he was perfectly free from envy, always encouraging those in whom he discovered talent. Death plucked him when in his best years, at Leipsic, Nov. 4, 1847. It is impossible to speak herein detail of Mendelssohn's works. They are very numerous, and embrace every branch of his art, but it was in sacred music that his highest powers were displayed; and St. Paul and Elijah will descend to posterity along with the Messiah and Israel in Egypt. See Benedict, Leben u. Werke des F. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1850); Lampadius, Leben d. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (Leips. 1848; in English, N. Y. 186) ; Fetis, Biographie Universelle des Musicens; V. Magnien, Etude biographique sur Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1850); Hiller, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (Cologne and Lond. 1874); Fraser's Magazine, April, 1848; British Quarterly Review, October, 1862.