One of Europe’s greatest composers, and a frequent London visitor, is honoured.
The composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809 - 1847) is to be commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at the Grade II listed 4 Hobart Place, the house he stayed in on his numerous visits to London at the height of his fame. The plaque will be unveiled at 11.30 on 4th February by Dmitry Sitkovetsky, world-renowned violinist and conductor, and by Sir Nicholas Kenyon, Managing Director of the Barbican Centre, former director of BBC Proms and also a member of the blue plaques panel. The unveiling will be the day after the two hundred and fourth anniversary of his birth.
Sir Nicholas Kenyon said: ”Mendelssohn was so beloved by the English that he virtually became one of our composers. He was a favourite of Queen Victoria who sang for him, many of his greatest works like Elijah were premiered here, our Philharmonic Society commissioned him, and he spent much time in London, conducting and composing. In return we made his music, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Hebrides Overture, part of our national tradition. It is very appropriate that a blue plaque should mark one of his regular London lodgings.”
A Precocious Musical Talent
Jacob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg and only lived to the age of 38. In his short life, he became an internationally famous composer, particularly loved by the English, but also extremely well regarded in his native Germany. His precocious musical talent first emerged at university in Berlin, where he was also a successful linguist, painter and draughtsman. One of his earliest compositions, and perhaps most well known was the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream; it was completed when he was just 17.
Mendelssohn first came to England in 1829 and his talent and personal charm saw him fêted in musical circles and beyond. He was made an honorary member of the Philharmonic Society and in 1824 he conducted this ensemble from the piano using a white baton, a great novelty at the time. He visited England ten separate times, fitting in a tour to Scotland that inspired the celebrated Die Hebriden overture of 1830. Mendelssohn loved visiting England but was less impressed with the musical standards he found. Of a performance of Handel’s Messiah, he wrote “every note spoke loudly that an Englishman played it, and did not care overmuch about it.” He is credited with having been a strong influence on the improvement of English musical life, and for inspiring English composers such as William Sterndale Bennett and Julius Benedict. He was also a great promoter and curator of the works of Bach, Handel and Schubert.
In his native Germany, Mendelssohn also enjoyed great success; he was music director in Dusseldorf from 1833 to 1835, conductor of the Gewandhaus orchestra in Leipzig from 1835 and Kapellmeister to the King of Prussia in Berlin from 1841. In later years, Wagner’s anti-Semitic hostility was taken up wholeheartedly by the Nazi regime, which banned Mendelssohn’s music and had his statue removed from outside the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Mendelssohn had been born Jewish but his family converted to Lutheranism in 1816 when he was seven.
Europe's Greatest Composer
His busy life, and the death of his beloved sister Fanny, soon took its toll and Mendelssohn died at Leipzig in 1847 after a series of strokes. At his death he was widely regarded as Europe’s greatest composer, with one biographer suggesting he was the first composer to be internationally mourned. An obituary in The Times asserted he “loved England as heartily as his own home”, memorial concerts were held across the country and a Mendelssohn scholarship was endowed in London the following year.
During Mendelssohn’s later trips to London, he stayed at 4 Hobart Place, the home of the Hanoverian embassy secretary, Karl Klingemann. He was at the height of his fame during these visits, and stayed four months in total over five separate spells. During his stays in Hobart Place he conducted the Philharmonic Society on numerous occasions and gave many organ recitals. It was from this building he left to dine with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which he did not enjoy, and Charles Dickens, which he very much did. It was back to this address that he rushed back to give his account of his audience with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1842. A plaque was first mooted here over a century ago; the case was revived at the suggestion of an English Heritage historian who works on the blue plaques scheme.
Mendelssohn loved London and his links to the city were strong. Writing about the city he said that there was “no question that that smoky nest is my preferred city and will remain so. I feel quite emotional when I think of it.”