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Biography

Ferdinand (von) Hiller (24 October 1811 – 11 May 1885) was a German composer, conductor, writer and music-director.

Ferdinand Hiller was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Frankfurt am Main, where his father Justus (originally Isaac Hildesheim) was a merchant in English textiles – a business eventually continued by Ferdinand’s brother Joseph. Hiller’s talent was discovered early and he was taught by the leading Frankfurt musician Alois Schmitt; at 10 he performed a Mozart concerto in public.

In 1822 the 13-year old Felix Mendelssohn entered his life. The Mendelssohn family was at that time staying briefly in Frankfurt and the young Hiller visited them where he was immensely impressed by the playing of Felix, (and even more so by that of his sister Fanny Mendelssohn). When their acquaintance was renewed in 1825 the two boys found an immediate close friendship, which was to last until 1843. Hiller tactfully describes their demarche as arising from "social, and not from personal susceptibilities." But in fact it seems to have been more to do with Hiller’s succession to Mendelssohn as director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1843.

From 1825 to 1827 Hiller was a pupil of Johann Nepomuk Hummel in Weimar; while he was with Hummel at Beethoven’s deathbed, Hiller secured a lock of Beethoven's hair. This lock is now at the San Jose State University, after having been sold at Sotheby’s in 1994.

From 1828 to 1835 Hiller based himself in Paris, and after that spent time in Italy, hoping that this would assist him to write a successful opera (a hope which was never fulfilled). Nevertheless a succession of musical appointments in major German provincial centres — Leipzig, Düsseldorf, Dresden and eventually Cologne, where he founded Conservatorium der Musik in Coeln in 1850 and remained as Kapellmeister from 1850 to 1884 — meant that he played a leading part in the country's musical life.

During Hiller’s long reign in Cologne, which earned him a ‘von’ to precede his surname, his star pupil was Max Bruch, the composer of the cello elegy Kol Nidrei, based on the synagogue hymn sung at Yom Kippur. Bruch incidentally was of solid German descent, although he has often been claimed as Jewish; his knowledge of the theme of Kol Nidrei however came through Hiller, who introduced him to the Berlin chazan, Lichtenstein. Hiller’s regime at Cologne was strongly marked by his conservative tastes, which he attempted to prolong by recommending, as his successor in 1884, either Brahms or Bruch. The appointment went however to a "modernist", Franz Wüllner, who, according to Grove "initiated his term with concerts of works by Wagner, Liszt and Richard Strauss, all of whom Hiller had avoided."

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