In this, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn, it is worth reflecting not only upon the music he wrote, but also upon his remark- able family and his influence on the practices and canon of European music. Felix was the son of Abraham Mendelssohn, an affluent banker in Hamburg; Abraham was the son of Moses Mendelssohn, a prominent philosopher of the 18th century. Abraham famously remarked that he was “once the son of a famous father, now the father of a famous son.” The household was phenomenally erudite. Immanuel Kant was a friend and colleague of the grandfather Moses, and the von Humboldt brothers visited often. Even in this extraordinary environment, Felix Mendelssohn was outstanding. Goethe (always at the center of things) was amazed at the 11-year-old boy’s musical skills and related the following discussion with Mendelssohn’s teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter:
Musical prodigies […] are probably no longer so rare; but what this little man can do in extemporizing and playing at sight borders the miraculous. and I could not have believed it possible at so early an age.” “And yet you heard Mozart in his seventh year at Frankfurt?” said Zelter. “Yes”, answered Goethe, “[…] but what your pupil already accomplishes, bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time, that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child.
The String Octet and Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, both from Mendelssohn’s late teens, do indeed border on the miraculous. And that was not all: at the age of 20, he summoned the forces of the Berlin Singakademie to give the first performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion since 1750. This revival was not merely an enormous success. It brought Bach back into the German, and
then into the world’s, performance repertoire, where it lives strongly to this day. It was this spectacularly gifted youth who wrote the sextet for Piano, Violin, Violas, Cello, and Contrabass in 1824. It is not a particularly complicated work. But one need not know it is the work of a 15-year old to find it absolutely brilliant.