In the eighteenth century, Frederick the Great of Prussia had all but replaced the old German Baroque style with the new enlightened Classical approach. Johann Sebastian Bach’s old church music of Lutheran Germany collected dust, while new methods of music were being explored. Much of Germany’s Protestant heritage of freedom was being replaced with Prussian martial Enlightenment, until Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn restored old Germany’s landmarks of liberty through music.
Born to a Jewish family on 3 February 1809, Mendelssohn was baptized into the Lutheran church on 21 March 1816 at the age of seven. The Lutheran understanding of the Christian faith would influence Mendelssohn all his life. His affluent and intellectual family also afforded him the life of a gentleman to pursue his talents. After studying piano under Ludwig Berger, violin with Wilhelm Henning, and music theory under Carl Friedrich Zelter, Mendelssohn began composing his first collection of works in 1820. While on a journey to Paris in 1825, he met the prestigious Luigi Cherubini and decided the future course of his career. Mendelssohn studied both the works of enlightened Classical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and old Baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach, but it was oddly Bach that caught Mendelssohn’s imagination. After matriculating from Berlin University in 1827, he conducted the first recreation of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion at the Berlin Singakademie in 1829.
In 1835, Mendelssohn preformed Bach's Concerto for Three Pianos and Orchestra in D Minor at the Gewandhaus concert hall. He earned his Honorary Doctorate from Leipzig University in 1836, finished composing his oratorio Saint Paul, and preformed Israel in Egypt. He traveled to Boston in 1837, and preformed Saint Paul for an American audience. To commemorate the four hundred year anniversary of the invention of the printing press, Mendelssohn premiered his Symphony #2 in B Flat Major, Lobgesang [Hymn of Praise], Opus 52 at St Thomas's Church in 1840. He also preformed an organ concert to raise funds for building a monument to his old Lutheran favorite Bach. In every sense, Mendelssohn was restoring the ancient landmarks of Reformed Germany.
Mendelssohn’s work was rewarded throughout the courts of Germany. On 31 March 1841, he was appointed as Kapellmeister for the Saxon Royal Court, called to fill the post of Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s court composer on July 1st wherever the monarch willed, and finally given the official title of Kapellmeister to the Prussian Royal Court on October 13th. Queen Victoria received him in 1842 on his seventh trip to England. In 1843, Mendelssohn became Director of Studies for the first musical conservatory in Germany, the newly opened Music Conservatoire at Leipzig. Later that year, he received the Freedom of the City of Leipzig Award, and unveiled his monument to the memory of Bach’s achievements. The year before he died, Mendelssohn premiered his Lauda Sion and his Elijah oratorio. When he died on 4 November 1847, not only Germany but the Christian Church lost a man who dedicated himself to restoring the Protestant heritage of Germany. His body was fittingly laid to rest in the Trinity Cemetery of Berlin.