Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Concerto Guide: Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64

Apologies for the hiatus! I got very busy for a few days and was not able to do any posting.

Felix Mendelssohn, the grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, was born into a prominent Jewish family though raised without religion and later baptised as a Christian. Am I correct in thinking that he is the first composer of Jewish descent that we have encountered in our concerto guide? Mendelssohn was the most gifted musical prodigy in history after Mozart (and Rosen places him even higher). As a teenager he was powerfully influenced by late Beethoven, or at least, aspects of late Beethoven. Mendelssohn, while possessing great lyric gifts, did not seem to inherit the bedrock grittiness of Beethoven.

Looking at both the Schumann Piano Concerto we talked about last week and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, I think it is safe to say that both composers were working in the shadow of Beethoven. Music was taking a new direction and it was being crafted to appeal to a new audience. Paganini and Liszt were discovering that the middle class concert audiences, so much larger than the aristocratic ones of the previous generations, had a liking for sheer instrumental virtuosity. Composers like Schumann and Mendelssohn combined some of that with a lyrical touch because, as Stephen Spielberg has discovered in our day, mass market audiences also have a taste for sentimentality and melodrama.

Whether or not one composer influenced the other, or whether both had one of the later Beethoven piano concertos in mind, one significant departure from 18th century practice for both of these concertos was to begin with the solo instrument. Schumann has a series of weighty chords where the piano strikes a very dominant attitude and Mendelssohn gives the first theme to the violin before the orchestra states it. Both avoid the typical 18th century practice (occasionally violated, especially by Mozart) of giving the orchestra an opening tutti where they state one or more of the themes. The tidiness of the earlier practice is now giving way to a much more dramatic one: the individual! Stands up! Against the crowd! This was both musically powerful and socially appealing.

Mendelssohn is often accused of being too sweet, too comfortable and lacking the dramatic force that Beethoven possessed. The opening melody, given to the violin, has a wonderful sweep and grace, but it does tend to become rather pedestrian as it progresses. If you compare this theme with those I quoted from the Beethoven Violin Concerto you might be struck by how terse they are compared to how lengthy and flowing this one is:

I mentioned the prominent place that the solo instrument is given at the very beginning: another innovation in the Mendelssohn is movement of the cadenza--fully written out--from the very end of the movement to the transition from the development to the recapitulation. As we will see later this year, Sibelius took this even further and made the violin cadenza into the development in his Violin Concerto. The Classical forms were becoming something of a Procrustean bed for the Romantic composers. They were relaxing and loosening the binding forces of harmonic tension and because of this the formal logic of the Classical forms was becoming less compelling. Using the virtuosity of the cadenza solved, for Mendelssohn the problem of the draining away of tension that sometimes plagued the end of his developments.

Now let's listen to the concerto, one of the most beautiful and charming Violin Concertos ever written. Here is Hilary Hahn with Paavo Jarvi conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra:


Rickard Dahl said...

It's an excellent work indeed. However, I found Schumman's Violin Concerto ( to be great, maybe just as great, or at least I think I prefer it.

Bryan Townsend said...

You could be right!