“There is but one god – Bach – and Mendelssohn is his prophet.” With this remark Hector Berlioz was astute as ever: it was Felix Mendelssohn who spearheaded the revival of interest in the music of Bach in the 19th century. It’s odd to think that a work like the St Matthew Passion had never been heard outside of Leipzig until 1829, when Mendelssohn conducted a performance in Berlin. 

Felix Mendelssohn, aquarelle by James Warren Childe (1830)
© Public domain

As well as championing Bach, Mendelssohn was a prolific composer in his own right, a child prodigy who died young (in 1847, aged 38). Unlike the infant Mozart, who was exhibited around Europe by his father, Mendelssohn’s musical talents were nurtured at home, where his early works were performed by a private orchestra for the wealthy elite of Berlin. 

Mendelssohn travelled widely around Europe, gaining inspiration for some of his most famous scores. He was also a noted watercolourist, painting on his tours. Mendelssohn made ten visits to Britain, where he was revered as the favourite composer of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. His music is often characterised by a youthful freshness, although later in his career he became greatly concerned with religion, writing devout oratorios which clearly show the influence of his idol, Bach. 

1A Midsummer Night’s Dream 

This is a miracle of a work… or rather works, because the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the set of incidental music have two different opus numbers, separated by an incredible 16 years. The overture, which Mendelssohn composed in his teens, is a remarkable distillation of Shakespeare’s play, conjuring up gossamer fairy magic and the clod-hopping “rude mechanicals”, including the braying of Bottom, transformed into a donkey. Mendelssohn then slipped back into the enchanted wood, commissioned by Frederick William IV of Prussia, to write a series of numbers to accompany the play, including such popular numbers as the Wedding March, used to greet thousands of newlyweds. 

2Symphony no. 4 in A major, “Italian”

Mendelssohn composed five symphonies (not to be confused with his 13 “string symphonies” that he wrote in his early teens), of which the fourth – dubbed “the Italian” – is the best known. His imagination was fired by the colour and the light on his visit to Italy, as part of his grand European tour 1829-31. “The Italian symphony is making great progress,” he wrote to his sister, Fanny. “It will be the jolliest piece I have ever done.” The finale captures the spirit of Rome with a traditional Italian dance, the Saltarello.

3Violin Concerto in E minor

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is one of his most evergreen works, full of sweetness and exuberance. But for all its lightness, it took the composer several years to write, in regular correspondence with Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. Unusually, Mendelssohn links the first two movements (through a sustained bassoon note), while the finale is another effervescent dance. 

4Symphony no. 3 in A minor, “Scottish”

Mendelssohn found the inspiration for his Third Symphony while visiting the ruins of Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh. “Everything is ruined, decayed, and the clear heavens pour in,” he wrote to his family. “I think I have found there the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.” There’s certainly a gloomy atmosphere in the introduction, but plenty of joy later on, including references to Scottish dances in the “Scotch snap” rhythms in the second movement. The finale has a touch of the Highland warrior about it too. 

5Octet in E flat major

The Octet was composed when Mendelssohn was just 16, and is full of youthful zest, right from its very opening, with leaping arpeggios; it's music full of optimism. The bustling Scherzo is a younger cousin to the Midsummer Night’s Dream fairy music, while the Presto finale is furiously energetic with a fugal subject which swiftly zips across all eight players. 

6The Hebrides Overture, “Fingal’s Cave”

As well as his “Scottish” Symphony, Mendelssohn’s first trip to Scotland led to one of the most famous overtures, The Hebrides. It specifically refers to the island of Staffa, which has a sea cave known as Fingal's Cave. Mendelssohn jotted down the opening theme straight after his voyage. The music doesn’t depict particular events, but rather it evokes the mood of the place; it’s really not an overture at all, but an early example of a tone poem. 

7Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

Mendelssohn clearly enjoyed sea travel! This next overture takes its title from two poems by Goethe, which themselves had inspired Beethoven’s cantata of the same name. For sailors, a “calm sea” was not a good thing – a good, strong wind was required for a “prosperous voyage”, which duly arrives and, with a trumpet fanfare and a pounding of timpani, the ship sets sail euphorically. 

8Songs without Words

The Lieder ohne Worte (Songs Without Words) are piano miniatures, published in eight groups between 1829 and 1845. Only a few have titles – Venetian Gondola Song pops up a couple of times – but everything else is left to the imagination of the listener, or indeed the player as these were published for “home consumption” as pianos were becoming an essential in many middle class homes across Europe. Here is one of those Venetian Gondola Songs:

9Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor

“I wrote it in but a few days and almost carelessly,” was Mendelssohn’s dismissive description of his First Piano Concerto. It’s a fine piece, full of sparkle, and was championed by the likes of Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt. The first movement contains a furious storm of activity, while the Andante has a reverential, hymn-like quality. All that is brushed away in the finale in which – after a brief fanfare – the piano tumbles in excitedly, with a jolly Rondo. 


In Germany, Mendelssohn did much to revive interest in Bach. In England, however, Handel’s oratorios never fell out of fashion and many towns and cities boasted amateur choral societies. In 1845, the Birmingham Festival commissioned an oratorio from Mendelssohn and he responded with Elijah, about the Old Testament prophet. Its fieriest section sees a showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Choruses such as “Be not afraid” ensured the oratorio’s widespread popularity.