This month we celebrate one Baroque era great and one Romantic era prodigy. George Frideric Handel (2/23/1685 – 4/14/1759) and Felix Mendelssohn (2/3/1809 – 11/4/1847) were respectively two prolific composers of their time. They each saw fame both during and after their lives – a feat not always achieved by even the most famous of composers (e.g. J.S. Bach).
Handel (originally Georg Friedrich Händel) was German-born, but resided in London, England for the majority of his life. In fact, you can visit his grave in Westminster Abbey! He is best known for composing some of the most famous operas of the Baroque Era, along with oratorios (dramatic liturgical works), and anthems, which were used for religious services.
There is little known of Handel’s childhood. It seems that he was mostly self taught as a child, often sneaking to his attic where he had hidden a spinet (his father discouraged the learning of music). He later gained notice from Duke Johann Adolf I, which allowed him to study music, at the request of the Duke. Handel would then study at University, and later held an organist position at a church in Halle, Germany. After this, Handel would travel to Italy, working for the Medici family and the Pope. Here he would hone his skills as a dramatist, writing thrilling operas.
Handel would later move to England where he would stay for the remainder of his life. Here he would compose some of his best known works such as Messiah, which contains the “Hallelujah Chorus”. It is of note that Handel composed this mammoth work in only 24 days! Other important works are Water Music; Music for the Royal Fireworks; Rinaldo; Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar); and Serse (Xerxes).
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was a German, early-Romantic composer. He remains one of the few famous composers to come from a Jewish family, although he was eventually brought up Christian. His affinity for “absolute” music, instead of “programmatic” music, would separate him from other contemporaries, such as Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz.
Mendelssohn excelled at music from a young age, composing symphonic works from age 12. He is often compared to Mozart in terms of abilities during his youth, but was never pressured to play or tour like Mozart had been from his father. Mendelssohn’s music remains very technical, containing fugues, counterpoint, and a very high degree of virtuosity for solo works. Whereas Liszt or Berlioz would be inspired by a poem, painting, or other extraneous motivator, Mendelssohn would prefer to write music without outside inspiration. In other words he was a champion of writing”good music for the sake of good music”. He would often vocally air his concerns with his contemporaries often.
Mendelssohn died after a series of strokes at the young age of 38. In this small timeframe he managed to compose 5 symphonies, various concertos (see Violin Concerto in E minor), piano music (see Rondo Capriccioso, and Preludes and Fugues), and many choral works (see Elijah). He wrote the ever-famous Wedding March, op. 61, which is played at the conclusion of many wedding ceremonies. Mendelssohn is also known for championing J.S. Bach by staging a performance of his St. Matthew’s Passion. Before this performance, Bach had fell out of popularity, and may have been totally forgotten if it wasn’t for Mendelssohn!