Felix Mendelssohn was lucky enough to be born into a rich family, with loving parents who encouraged him to be a musician. And he certainly had the right name. Felix is Latin for “happy.”
Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany, and grew up in Berlin. His grandfather was the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, but Felix Mendelssohn lived at a time when it was very difficult to be Jewish in Germany — there were all kinds of laws and taxes that applied only to Jews. Felix Mendelssohn’s father Abraham was a banker who didn’t want to deal with anti-Semitism — people discriminating against him just because he was Jewish. So he converted to Christianity, and changed the family name to Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
The Mendelssohn family held regular Sunday afternoon concerts at their house, so Felix grew up with music all around him. He was already a terrific pianist as a child, and started composing when he was ten. As a teenager, Mendelssohn had already written some of his greatest music. He was also a wonderful visual artist.
Mendelssohn was very close to his older sister, Fanny, who also played the piano and composed. The two of them not only made music together, they also put on plays — like A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare.
Mendelssohn loved to travel. His trips to other countries inspired some of his best music, like his Scottish and Italian Symphonies.
Mendelssohn also became well known as a conductor. When he was just 20, he put together and conducted the first concert of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion since Bach’s lifetime.