Today it’s hard to imagine a wedding unaccompanied by the soaring notes of Mendelssohn’s famous march, which has provided the soundtrack to the climax of a thousand romantic comedies in the last half-century. On 25 January 1842 it was completed by the German composer Felix Mendelssohn.
Mendelssohn was born into a wealthy Jewish family in the then-independent city-state of Hamburg in 1811, though he was forced to flee to Berlin as a young child to escape Napoleon’s wrath over the role his banking father had had in breaking the Emperor’s continental blockade.
In the Prussian capital he received a superb education and was immersed in an environment which included many of the most influential intellectuals of the time, leading one contemporary to joke that “Europe came to the Mendelssohn’s drawing room.”
It is unsurprising therefore that Felix quickly became a well-known child prodigy, and was studying advanced musical theory from the age of eight in 1819. His tutor, Carl Friedrich Zelter, introduced him to the earlier styles of Baroque music, particularly Bach, who would exert a profound influence on Felix’s later career as a composer.
By the time he was fourteen, he had written six symphonies and his career was well under way. Like many such child prodigies, he is reported to have to have been very highly strung and prone to colossal tantrums.
Celebrity status in Britain
Just a year later, however, he embarked upon a project to write an Overture based on Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the final result is regarded to be the first showcase of his true genius.
In the years between re-visiting this work and adding the famous Wedding March, Mendelssohn developed a strong attachment to Britain, which he first visited in 1829, and became a spiritual home where his music was rapturously received. He even met Queen Victoria and her husband Albert, a fellow German who was very impressed by the young composer.
As a result, when the Wedding March was added to the earlier Overture, it was first performed in Tiverton, Devon, and became widely popular when the great Queen’s daughter (also called Victoria) selected it for her own marriage in 1858. Perhaps fittingly, it was to a Prussian Prince, thus uniting the major cultural influences over Mendelssohn’s life.
Among history’s greatest composers
Sadly however, the composer did not live to see the triumphant reception of his most famous work. He had died years earlier in 1847 at the age of just thirty-eight after a series of strokes.
After his death, as Europe was gripped by anti-Semitism until way into the 20th century, his fame and reputation suffered, but today he has been renovated as one of the best composers of the Romantic period.
His works are varied and highly regarded, but it would be difficult to argue that The Wedding March is his most famous to this day, and has achieved the cultural status of being universally associated with one of the great life ceremonies.