"The son and heir of a rich Berlin banker, he always wrought as a poor man's son, and never indulged himself in ease or sloth, as he might have done; tempted to write down to the masses, to win popularity, rather than write up to the few, to set a high standard and leave good work behind him, he always did the latter; flattered beyond any man of his age, not only in Germany but in England, he never lost his head for a moment, and remained one of the most unaffected of men; living in loose capitals and surrounded by unprincipled people, he was true to all moral obligations, and perfect in all the relations of son, brother, lover, husband, and father; surrounded by intrigues, he stood above them all, and was frank, transparent, honorable, noble; tempted by his sunny, enthusiastic, alert nature, to do simply bright and genial things in music, he was thorough, studious, earnest, religious, and steadfastly consecrated to the highest and the best."
- Lampadius in his Life of Mendelssohn

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, born in 1809, was one of the major German Romantic composers. Mendelssohn showed a surprising gift for composition at an early age. He wrote his famous overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream when he was seventeen; by then he had also written twelve symphonies for string orchestra. [1] The same elfin delicacy and diaphanous texture of the Overture, evoking a fairy kingdom with so sensitive a touch, is found in another important work which Mendelssohn wrote that year, his Octet for Strings. "Not even Mozart or Schubert," wrote John Horton, "accomplished at the age of seventeen anything quite as astonishing as this major work of chamber music." [2]

Mendelssohn's friend Eduard Devrient said of him: "The habit of constant occupation...made rest intolerable to him. To spend any time in mere talk caused him to look frequently at his watch, by which he often gave offense; his impatience was pacified only when something was being done, such as music, reading, chess."[3] His taste was most fastidious, and often he would spend hours on a few bars till he had polished them to perfection. Mendelssohn's favorite motto was: "What is worth doing at all is worth doing well." [4]

In 1833 Mendelssohn applied for, but was denied, the post of conductor of the Singakademie in Berlin. Later that year, however, he was made general music director of Dusseldorf, in charge of its Opera, church music, and two choral groups. He was not happy in this post, largely because his artistic aims were higher than the means at his disposal. After leaving Dusseldorf for Leipzig which he referred to as "a paradise", he became principal conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, a position which provided him with resources to match his aims. [5]

His friend Ferdinand Hiller, who called him "one of the brightest and most beautiful stars in the firmament of German art," thought his great fault was in being too old-fashioned, and not yielding enough to the modern tendencies toward richness and fullness of ornamentation. The French think that if Mendelssohn had been a French composer, as might easily have been the case, he would have lost that Germanic stiffness that repelled them and would have gained in more ways than one.[6]

In 1837 he married Cecile Jeanrenaud, the daughter of a French Huguenot clergyman. In 1842-43, Mendelssohn organized the Leipzig Conservatory and made it known worldwide as a model music school. Meanwhile he maintained an intensive schedule of touring as pianist and conductor, especially in England, where he was the favorite composer of Queen Victoria. Shocked by the death of his sister on May 14, 1847, and exhausted from overwork, Mendelssohn fell prey to the recurrence of a previous illness and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847. [7]

Impeccable craftsmanship and a thorough knowledge and understanding of the media for which he wrote are distinguishing traits of Mendelssohn's music. Mendelssohn excelled in all musical genres except opera [8] which exposed his lack of a dramatic, or rather, a theatric talent. Though few would deny that Mendelssohn at his greatest exerts a peculiar fascination, evoking a world of magic uniquely his own, critics are generally agreed that he is not of the stature of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach or Handel. If we were to compare Mendelssohn with the giants of the musical art, we would discover, as Daniel Gregory Mason did, that "we cannot escape the impression of a certain thinness of blood, straitness of sympathy, and inelasticity of mind. His personality is tenuous, overrarefied; he seems more like a faun than a man. And hence it comes about that when leaving his world of fairies, elves, visionary landscapes, and ethereal joys and sorrows, he tries to sound a fuller note of human pain and passion, he is felt to be out of his element. His style is too fluent, too suave, too insinuating and inoffensive, to embody tragic emotion. It lacks the rugged force, the virile energy, the occasional harshness and discordance even of the natural human voice; its reading of life, in which there is ugliness, crudity, and violence as well as beauty, is too fastidiously expurgated." [9]

However, as Frederic H. Cowen summed up: "If Mendelssohn did not rise to the greatest heights, he came within measurable distance of them. His music bears the stamp of his cultured mind, and his high level of excellence is undeniable."[10]

Aristotle's Self-Realization Theory is an example of Virtue Ethics, an approach to ethics that has been overshadowed for the last few centuries by an alternate approach, typified by that of utilitarianism and Kant's Rational Consistency Theory. Rather than describing ethics as a process of applying a set of rules to situations to determine the right action, Virtue Ethics focuses on how one should live in order to become a good person with integrity and character.

Aristotle combined Virtue Ethics, the concept that an individual's focus should be on what kind of person he becomes, with an idea that closely resembles Maslow's hierarchy of needs which ranks the needs of a living being in the order in which they must be satisfied. Maslow theorized that the lower, physical needs and then the emotional needs must be satisfied before the higher, intellectual needs can be considered. Only after the higher needs have been satisfied can one reach the top of the hierarchy, Self-Actualization. Aristotle held that this final need, which he referred to as Self-Realization, is the good. That is, the good for each entity is in attaining its full potential which is the only path along which happiness can be achieved.

Aristotle believed that the lower needs had to be controlled through discipline so that one could move on to satisfying the intellectual needs. Aristotle referred to the techniques of self-control used to assert reason over emotion as the moral virtues. These moral virtues allow us to satisfy our appetites and passions just enough to move on to the intellectual virtues. This point of moderation between deficiency and excess is called the Golden Mean. Aristotle also observes that virtue alone is not sufficient to obtain Self-Realization. He cites luck as an important ingredient for overcoming the troubles of life to finally become all that one can be. If one is fortunate and has means such as money, power, or beauty, one can use these tools to achieve the desirable end-state of Self-Actualization. However Aristotle cautions that these tools can not be end-states in themselves. Like self-control and reason, these tools are only stepping stones to Self-Actualization and happiness.

In order to evaluate the life of Felix Mendelssohn from the perspective of Aristotle's theory, we must first examine the necessary conditions to begin the ascent of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. He was sufficiently lucky to avoid the problems that plagued other composers, lack of money and recognition. Mendelssohn was born into a rich family which guaranteed him financial security for his entire life. He was widely admired and enormously popular, and his death was mourned throughout Europe. Mendelssohn clearly had well-developed moral virtues, and his high degree of self-discipline enabled him to avoid the first level of pitfalls and move on to the intellectual virtues.

His personal motto, "What is worth doing at all is worth doing well", suggests that Mendelssohn spent his life working to improve his skills in the areas that he considered significant, to be all that he could be. However, this perfectionist attitude and the indication that excessive work contributed to his demise raise the question of whether he was truly living his life according to the Golden Mean. Was it a compulsion to work that cut his life short, and did it prevent him from achieving his potential?

"Overworking" was Mendelssohn's habit throughout his life, and his death cannot really have been caused primarily by this practice. Considering that he had experienced ill health on several occasions and that the death of his sister was an unexpected blow which coincided with his sickness, it was really a final reversal of fortune that led to Mendelssohn's early death. His policy of constantly pushing himself to his personal limit was not a lack of moral virtue but was instead an indication of his unyielding pursuit of Self-Actualization. So how can the criticisms of Mendelssohn's work be reconciled with the other evidence in terms of Aristotle's theory?

Translating the main criticisms into the terms of Virtue Ethics, Mendelssohn has been accused of being too inflexible, too conservative to achieve his full musical capacity which was suggested to be possibly greater than Mozart's early in his career. The critics suggest that while most err on one side of the Golden Mean, Mendelssohn erred on the other, living, thinking, and composing in such a narrowly-defined way that he was unable to enhance his music with the emotional depth needed to be considered a first rank composer. One of the implications of this sort of criticism is that the very smooth and comfortable nature of Mendelssohn's lifestyle which allowed him to thrive also inhibited his artistic growth, a notion that conflicts with Aristotle's theory.

In the end, an Aristotelian analysis of an individual's life can not be based upon the standards of others which is what invalidates these external assessments. Mendelssohn's untiring search for perfection in each piece shows that by his standards he was able to achieve his potential. Further evidence is given by his virtually invariant happiness, a result of his satisfaction with his progress toward personal goals. Indeed, he became unhappy specifically when his progress was stifled. For most of his life, Mendelssohn was a happy man in the truest Aristotelian sense, in a way that can be completely explained by Aristotle's theory. Felix Mendelssohn's life seems to be the perfect demonstration and confirmation of Aristotle's Self-Realization Theory.

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