Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, 1809-1847. Concerto in E Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64. Completed 1844, first performance March 13th, 1845, in Leipzig. Scored for 2 each flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, tympani, and strings.

The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto has a history of association with child prodigies. First is the composer himself, who appeared in public at the age of 9 and began preserving his compositions at 11. His parents encouraged an extensive musical education (more in the interests of producing a cultured son of a wealthy family than in fostering a career in the arts), and impromptu chamber concerts were common in the home. At 16, Mendelssohn was sufficiently advanced to write his unforgettable Octet, Op. 20, one of the finest works he ever produced.

That same year, he met the rising 15-year-old violinist Ferdinand David, who had already appeared as a soloist in the famous Leipzig Gewandhaus, a hall which was to figure prominently in the development of the concerto. The two quickly became close friends, and maintained contact via a steady stream of letters as their careers developed.

In 1836, Mendelssohn was appointed conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and asked that David be chosen as leader, or concertmaster. Mendelssohn soon began thinking of writing a concerto to showcase the talents of his friend. In 1838 he proposed this in a letter, having selected a key and already thought of the opening melody, even complaining that he could not get it out of his mind. Other commitments intervened, though, and the work was not completed for another six years.

The concerto was a great success at its spring premiere, and was mounted again the following autumn. About a month after this second performance, Clara Schumann was scheduled to play her husband Robert's piano concerto in Dresden, but fell ill and was unable to take the stage. Ferdinand Hiller, the conductor, substituted the Mendelssohn violin concerto. David had a prior engagement, however, and sent a pupil who had been studying the work in his stead. The third prodigy, 14-year-old Joseph Joachim, performed masterfully in this outing, beginning a career that was to make him the undisputed king of 19th-century violinists.

Since Joachim, this work has been used to introduce many a talented young fiddler. However, this fact should not lead one to conclude that the concerto is easy to perform. Quite the contrary: the frequent virtuoso passages provide ample opportunity for a young star to show off his or her technique, while the lyricism of the piece will quickly reveal the performer's interpretive talents.

Like Mozart, Mendelssohn had a special gift for melody. It is easy to see why the opening theme would not leave his thoughts, for it is as memorable as it is beautiful. The orchestration of the first movement is generally straightforward, designed to show off the violinist rather than overwhelm the listener with complexity. It is worth listening carefully for the especially luminous point where Mendelssohn takes the idea of simplification to the limit (foreshadowing Mahler's chamber-like style) by reducing the instrumentation to a simple clarinet-and-flute melody while the soloist holds an endless note on the lowest string.

A sustained tone on the bassoon leads seamlessly into the second movement, characterized by a swaying, lyrical theme in time. In the middle section one can again appreciate the difficulty of the solo part, which uses double stops to accompany its own slow theme with an undercurrent of agitated sixteenth notes.

The final movement pays proper homage to the virtuoso tradition of the concerto, displaying buoyant themes at such breakneck speed that the soloist seems to play twice as many notes as any pair of other instruments combined. This movement is structured in a ``question and answer'' form, with the violin and orchestra trading lively ideas and challenges back and forth with ever-mounting glee until they finally marshal their forces to agree on an ending statement that leaves the audience clamoring for more.

© 1994, Geoff Kuenning

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