FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1844-45), 28 minutes
Felix Mendelssohn was born on February 3, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany and died on November 4, 1847 in Leipzig, Germany. The Violin Concerto was first performed on March 13, 1845 in Leipzig by soloist Ferdinand David with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Niels Gade. The work is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings and solo violin.
In the pantheon of violin concertos, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor is a shinning warhorse that has enjoyed popularity with both performers and audiences. The roots of the concerto, as with many, are generally written for or at the behest of a virtuoso soloist; such is the case for Mendelssohn’s second outing with the genre. As a child-prodigy, he had composed the Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra in D-minor in his early teens, and so nearing the end his life, it seems fitting that he would return to infuse a new level of craft and maturity into the violin concerto.
In 1835, Mendelssohn appointed the violinist and composer Ferdinand David as the concertmaster for his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. The two would become colleagues and friends, and in 1838, Mendelssohn wrote to David, “I would like to write a concerto for you.” It would take several years for the composer to complete the task and the work would be dedicated to and premiered by David. Plagued with illness, the composer would hand over conducting duties to the Danish composer and conductor Niels Gade for the 1845 premiere. Mendelssohn’s young prodigious musical talent is often compared to Mozart, and it would seem both would be taken in the prime of their 30s. Mendelssohn would pass two years after the concerto’s premiere, at the age of 38.
Not at all shy of the string instruments, Mendelssohn composed a number of string symphonies channeling the contrapuntal intricacies of J.S. Bach, whose work he would help re-introduce. His music often graces the audition stand for many string players entering the symphony, and his writing offers a cornucopia of string’s greatest hits. Yet, when embarking on the concerto, he was greatly concerned with playability. During the composing of the work, David would see sketches and offer suggestions and this collaboration, of composer to performer, is a testament to creating musical legacy. Much of the passages in the first and third movements are whirlwinds of acrobatic scales and double stops, and it is dexterous, requiring the greatest of skill and finesse to execute. But the music is entirely idiomatic, fitting the hand of the violinist like a glove, enhancing the sorcery and command of the instrument to the artist.
The concerto is in three movements, but it really is one continuous movement with clever transitions that smoothen sections together. A close look at the score will reveal no end bar-lines at the end of the first and second movements, but rather double bar lines that denote the end of a section or tempo change. At the end of the first, a solitary sustained bassoon holds the silence into the Andante, and a transitional introduction bridges the second to the acrobatic Allegro molto vivace of the third. This is the first of many innovations that Mendelssohn would bring to the concerto form.
The sonata-form first movement marked Allegro motto appassionato, will showcase from the start another innovation departing the classical style, the immediate entry of the solo. There is no extended orchestral exposition, just three beats of a sea of E-minor murmuring in the strings. The percolating eighth notes sets a dark atmosphere that will recall the Scottish Hebrides. The solo violin sails across this harmonic ocean in three melodic phrases. The first two floating the tune in a question and answer, and the third taking off as chordal winds whisk the soloist into currents and streams of triplet rhythms. When Mendelssohn wrote David about writing a concerto, he remarked that it would be composed with an “E-minor theme that keeps running through my head.” If there is allegory, after the initial statement, the violin sprints gymnastically up and down between orchestral hoops and polls, before the orchestra enters into their own tidal-like echo of the theme.
When the solo returns, serpentine passages will transition the work through hills and valleys of eighth-note arpeggiations. Rising double-stop triplets will skirt through pebbles of string punctuations and a fragrance of a new tune will blossom in the flutes. The musical activity settles with sustained strings and the solo will dip it’s toes into a pond, descending upon a long open G. The winds and the second theme in G-major emerge from this brief stillness before the main E-minor theme returns transformed into the relative major; a harbinger of the changing tides, an ushering in of the development.
The concerto has often used the sonata form for the first movement as it has a dramatic conflict built-in, setting the ground work for the solo and orchestral forces at play. The exposition will layout two themes in two different keys, a conflict that will resolve in the return of this music, the recapitulation. The tumultuous section of music that connects these battleground sections, the development, is where the battle is fought, journeying through different keys using material from anywhere as musical shrapnel to create capricious excitement. With the concerto, it is a rage against the machine, one against nature, or of the hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (Fingal) against the fire-breathing man of the Tuatha Dé Danann of Irish and Scottish lore.
The soloist will seldom perform the melody in full, unleashing rounds of triplet firepower. The orchestra has more to say about the theme, but it will be in fragments, shattered by the might of the one. No where is this battle of one against all most clear than in the juxtaposition of walls of orchestral harmony pitted against the soloist, ascending in melodic contour against orchestral waves and mountains.
The conclusion of the development will be crystal clear. Mendelssohn moves the cadenza from the usual place at the end, before the coda, to a much earlier mark; making it an outgrowth of the vociferous development, bridging the recapitulation. The music for the cadenza was a task often left to the soloist in the classical era, but the seeds of the cadenza are planted by the composer. The arching arpeggiations crossing all four strings will bloom into staccato virtuosity of the bow, dancing victoriously atop the orchestra’s return of the first theme.
As expected in the recapitulation, the battle of themes and keys is resolved with the second theme transformed not to the home key, but to the parallel E-major. A return to a dark E-minor sound scape will unleash the serpentine theme bridging the two themes as a closing tune, bringing the movement to a stark presto finale. © MTF
*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on June 11-13, 2021.