Musical youth elixir – Derek Scally on Felix Mendelssohn

Throwing open the window of the soul

Someone said once that when you are tired of London, you are tired of life. I thought something similar recently about Felix Mendelssohn: if you don’t respond to his joyful, fizzing, dreamy music, then perhaps you have lost touch with your inner 16-year-old.

This year I have had two encounters with Mendelssohn’s soaring fourth, Italian, symphony.

The first time was at a funeral in Berlin last April, where the symphony’s first movement was the last musical request of my friend Sibylle May, sister of Irish-based sculptor Imogen Stuart.

My second encounter came earlier this month in the East German splendour of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus.


This hulking, handsome box of massive murals and remarkable acoustics from 1981 is the third iteration of a concert hall that began life in the top floor of Leipzig’s cloth trade hall.

Felix Mendelssohn, born in Hamburg in 1809 and raised in Berlin, was a regular visitor to Leipzig and he secured the place of the Gewandhaus – and its in-house orchestra – on Europe’s cultural map.

It was Mendelssohn, too, who drove the 19th-century revival of interest in Johann Sebastian Bach. Then nearly forgotten, Bach now attracts tens of thousands of musical pilgrims each year to Leipzig, where he lived and worked.

After a creative and restless career on the road, Leipzig was where Mendelssohn set up what would be his last home. His first-floor apartment on Goldschmidtstrasse is where his short life ended in 1847, aged just 36.

Now a museum, the Mendelssohn Haus, his only surviving home is a beautiful and atmospheric place of connecting rooms with creaking wooden floors and original sloping staircase.

The wealthy son of a banking dynasty – and grandson of pre-eminent philosopher Moses Mendelssohn – the young Felix had his first public piano concert aged nine and was a touted around Europe by his enthusiastic father as the greatest musical prodigy since Mozart.

The museum has rooms – and exhibits – from every stage of Mendelssohn’s life, with amusing letters and impressive watercolours documenting his travels and acclaim around Europe, in particular Victorian London.

In the room where he died, alongside his plaster death mask, a book of obituaries and condolence letters record the extraordinary outpouring of grief across the continent for a composer who was a giant in his time.

To the composer’s widow, Cécile, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia wrote: “The greatest consolation which remains for me and indeed for us all – and which causes his accomplishments to delight, restore and uplift – is the knowledge that his works will outlive him.”

For Felix Mendelssohn art was about “pulling everyone in, showing on person another’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, throwing open the window of the soul”.

Putting that philosophy into practice on the ground floor of the museum is a digital concert room filled with upright smart speakers, one for each orchestra instrument group. Connected to a sensor-enabled tablet, visitors can control the speakers and conduct a unique rendition of a Mendelssohn favourite.

As I wave my baton helplessly through the glorious “Midsummer Night’s Dream” overture, I notice two small boys slip in to watch and listen. As I pass them the baton, the punchy music still in full flight, I see their eyes gleam with delight.

I saw a similar gleam in the eyes of the Gewandhaus concert audience after an energetic rendition of Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony, conducted with matador-like grace by Andrés Orozco-Estrada.

Also on the programme that night: the playful, riotous “Con Brio” overture by Jörg Widmann.

Like Felix Mendelssohn before him, Widmann is one of Europe’s most in-demand musicians, composers and conductors of his generation.

He is also chief conductor of the Irish Chamber Orchestra (ICO) and their Mendelssohn symphonies together – interpolated with punchy Widmann works – are reference recordings of pure clarity and joy.

Leaving the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Italian symphony in my ear and my friend Sibylle on my mind, I caught sight of the opera house opposite.

With a shiver I was transported back to an evening here 20 years ago when I watched, slack-jawed with wonder, as the city’s ballet company brought to life before my eyes Mendelssohn’s staggering Octet in E flat major.

Composed when Felix was just 16, if you don’t respond to this music, please check your pulse to see if you are still alive. The octet was a favourite of the composer’s sister Fanny and her description of the works sums up the kick of Felix Mendelssohn’s musical youth elixir: “All is new, strange and yet so familiar and pleasing – one feels close to the world of spirits lightly carried up into the air.”