City Stories: The life of Mendelssohn

The life and times of Felix Mendelssohn

Situated outside the Oper am Rhein, is a statue commemorating the life of one of the many great artists who called Düsseldorf home during their life. If you’re having a bad day and feeling a bit down about what you’ve achieved in your life, may I humbly suggest that you stop reading now. The life and times of Felix Mendelssohn are not for those who are wondering whether they could perhaps have been a bit more productive in their early years.

Felix Mendelssohn first took to the stage at the age of nine. After seeing Mendelssohn perform, Beethoven wrote in his diary, ‘Mendelssohn – 12 years – promises much’. By the time he was fourteen, Mendelssohn had composed two operas and twelve symphonies as well as other miscellaneous pieces for chamber orchestra and piano. At seventeen he had, inter alia, composed an overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream which was deemed a masterpiece. To put all of this in context, Mozart, considered one the great child prodigies, did not compose an equivalent piece until the age of eighteen.

Between 1829 and 1832, Mendelssohn undertook his grand European tour – the 1800s equivalent of a gap year. While most people are lucky to scrawl a couple of postcards and the occasional insightful journal entry, Mendelssohn whipped up two symphonies: the Hebrides Overture and Symphony No. 4 in A major. 

At the age of 24, Mendelssohn landed his first job as a musician. No, not playing weddings and bar mitzvahs, rather, Mendelssohn was appointed as musical director in Düsseldorf. During his two years in the job, Mendelssohn was a prolific member of Düsseldorf’s cultural scene – a friend and contemporary of Robert Schumann – and also contributed to the broader German classical musical cannon, most notably through his revival of the work of George Frideric Handel.  His Düsseldorf period proved, however, to be a turbulent and controversial one. Protests over ticket prices at his performances, and frustration at what he saw as the city’s provincialism, eventually saw him leave Düsseldorf two years later for a post in Liepzig, and what was to be another prolific period of composition.

A mere fourteen years later, Mendelssohn died of a stroke at the age of 38, months after the death of his beloved sister Fanny, an exceptionally talented musician in her own right.

The statue pictured above commemorates the life and contribution of Mendelssohn to the city of Düsseldorf. Erected in September 2012, the statue replaced one destroyed by the Nazis in 1940. Like many other statues of Mendelssohn around Germany, the original was removed and melted down to make ammunition in protest at Mendelssohn’s Jewish heritage. The replacement statue was funded entirely through donations and cast using a plaster model of the original that was found hidden in museum storage, returning Felix Mendelssohn to his place of honour alongside the Opera House.