MENDELSSOHN: Songs without Words
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Songs without Words(Selections)
To contemporaries ofMendelssohn the notion of songs without words seemed paradoxical. If there wereno words, in fact, there could be no song. Yet what Mendelssohn achieved wasexactly what his title suggested, music in its purest and simplest form,expressing its own musical meaning, imbued with feeling, but without verbalconnotation. At the same time short piano pieces of this kind would always finda ready amateur market and would be welcomed by publishers, although this mayhave been irrelevant to the composer's purpose.
Felix Mendelssohn,grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, the great Jewish thinker of the Enlightenment,was born in Hamburg in 1809, the son of a prosperous banker. His family wasinfluential in cultural circles, and he and his sister were educated in anenvironment that encouraged both musical and general cultural interests. At thesame time the extensive acquaintance of the Mendelssohns among artists and menof letters brought an unusual breadth of mind, a stimulus to natural curiosity.
Much of Mendelssohn'schildhood was passed in Berlin, where his parents moved when he was three, toescape Napoleonic invasion. There he took lessons from Goethe's much admiredZelter, who introduced him to the old poet in Weimar. The choice of a career inmusic was eventually decided on the advice of Cherubini, consulted by AbrahamMendelssohn in Paris, where he was director of the Conservatoire. Therefollowed a period of further education, a Grand Tour of Europe that took him toItaly and north to Scotland. His professional career began in earnest with hisappointment as general director of music in D??sseldorf in 1833.
Mendelssohn'ssubsequent career was intense and brief. He settled in Leipzig as conductor ofthe Gewandhaus concerts, and was instrumental in establishing the Conservatorythere. Briefly lured to Berlin by the King of Prussia and by the importunity ofhis family, he spent an unsatisfactory year or so as director of the musicsection of the Academy of Arts, providing music for a revival of classicaldrama under royal encouragement. This appointment he was glad to relinquish in1844, later returning to his old position in Leipzig, where he died in 1847.
As a composer Mendelssohnpossessed a perfect technical command of the resources available to him and wasalways able to write music that is felicitous, apt and often remarkablyeconomical in the way it achieves its effects. Mendelssohn had, like the restof his family, accepted Christian baptism, a ceremony Heine once described as aticket of admission into European culture. Nevertheless he encounteredanti-Semitic prejudice, as others were to, and false ideas put about in his ownlife-time have left some trace in modern repetitions of accusations ofsuperficiality for which there is no real justification.
The series of Songswithout Words that Mendelssohn wrote and published from 1830 onwards serveas a very personal musical diary in which the composer expressed very preciselymusical ideas that had, he alleged, no verbal equivalent. It was left to laterpublishers to suggest titles for the pieces, a procedure that Mendelssohnhimself deplored.