Today is Mendelssohn's 200th birthday (Feb. 3, 1809) — which completes the trifecta of geniuses born within a 10 day period between Feb 3 and Feb 12, 1809 (with Darwin and Lincoln, of course, on Feb 12). [If any of you know of a comparable 10-day period, I'd love to hear what it was and who was born within it]
Mendelssohn is an under-appreciated composer, in my view. I wouldn't say he belongs in the very top rank (with Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms . . .), but his body of chamber music (esp. the piano trios and the magisterial Octet) and symphonies (esp. #4) rank among true masterpieces of western music.
He should have had Mozart's publicist. [Mozart actually had a publicist - his father] Mozart gets all the historical mojo for being "the boy genius." But it was Mendelssohn, in fact, who displayed true genius far earlier than Mozart (or Schubert - or anyone else, for that matter). Mozart was an insanely talented musician as a boy - but as a composer, he wrote little of merit, and nothing of genius, while still a teenager. [To my ear, anyway] The stuff he wrote — the operas at age 9 and all that — are amazing in the way, to paraphrase Johnson, that a dog playing the violin is amazing: it's not how well it's done, but that it is done at all that amazes.
Mendelssohn, though, wrote the Octet and the Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream when he was 16. Listen (hey, it's his birthday!) to those pieces, and try to imagine them emerging from the pen of a 16 year old. Mozart has nothing like it at that age. So: happy birthday Felix!
UPDATE: Thanks to R&R who points out in the comments that I'm taking some unfair swipes at Mozart. It's true, and I really don't want to be seen as taking swipes at Mozart -- I adore the guy, believe me. the comparison is more a way to get attention for Mendelssohn, who's not often mentioned in the same breath as the saintly Mozart, but who was just as magnificent a musician, and at just as early an age.