MENDELSSOHN: Works for Violin and Piano
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Complete music forviolin and piano
Born in Hamburg in 1809, eldest son of the banker Abraham Mendelssohnand grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn,who took the additional name Bartholdy on his baptism as a Christian, Heine'sticket of admission to European culture, was brought up in Berlin, where hisfamily settled in 1812. Here he enjoyed the wide cultural opportunities thathis family offered, through their own interests and connections. Mendelssohn'searly gifts, manifested in a number of directions, included marked musicalprecocity, both as a composer and as a performer, at a remarkably early age.
These exceptional abilities received every encouragement from his family and theirfriends, although Abraham Mendelssohn entertained early doubts about thedesirability of his son taking the profession of musician. These reservationswere in part put to rest by the advice of Cherubini in Paris and by theincreasing signs of the boy's musical abilities and interests.
Mendelssohn's early manhood brought the opportunity to travel, as farsouth as Naples and as far north as The Hebrides, with Italy and Scotland bothproviding the inspiration for later symphonies. His career involved him in theLower Rhine Festival in D??sseldorf and a period as city director of music,followed, in 1835, by appointment as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra inLeipzig. Here he was able to continue the work he had started in Berlin sixyears earlier, when he had conducted in Berlin a revival of Bach's StMatthew Passion. Leipzig was to provide a degree of satisfaction that hecould not find in Berlin, where he returned at the invitation of King FriedrichWilhelm IV in 1841. In Leipzig once more, in 1843, he established a newConservatory, spending his final years there, until his death at the age of 38on 4th November 1847, six months after the death of his gifted and belovedsister Fanny.
Mendelssohn completed his Violin Sonata in F major on 15th June1838, but withheld it from publication, leaving its rediscovery to YehudiMenuhin, who published the work in 1953. It is an example of music of thecomposer's maturity, at a time when he had begun to contemplate the greatViolin Concerto in E minor. This last was introduced to the public inLeipzig in 1845 by Ferdinand David, a pupil of Spohr, who had taken up aposition in 1836, at the age of 26, as leader of the Leipzig GewandhausOrchestra under Mendelssohn. The sonata in many ways prefigures the later concertoand was presumably written with David in mind. The first movement starts withthe expected brilliance in a principal subject stated initially by the pianoand extended by the violin. This leads to secondary material, appearing firstwith a shift to the minor. The central development ends with a passageaccompanied by violin arpeggios, prefiguring a similar passage in the futureconcerto. These arpeggios accompany the start of the recapitulation, as theprincipal subject makes its return. The moving A major Adagio againallows the piano to introduce the main theme, then taken up by the violin in amovement of fine simplicity that still finds a place for outbursts ofpassionate feeling. The sonata ends with a movement in the familiar style of aMendelssohn scherzo in which the writing for the two instruments remains, asalways, perfectly balanced.
Mendelssohn owed his early training as a violinist to his teacher andfriend Eduard Rietz Born in Berlin in 1802, the son of a violinist in theBerlin Court Orchestra, Rietz had joined the same orchestra in 1819, leaving itin 1825, after disagreements with the conductor Spontini, to found the BerlinPhilharmonic Society the following year, leading its semi-amateur orchestra inconcerts with the Berlin Singakademie. This was the ensemble that he led inMendelssohn's famous revival of Bach's St Matthew Passion in 1829, anenterprise in which he and his cellist brother Julius had collaborated byhelping to write out the parts for the performance. Mendelssohn dedicated toRietz his Violin Concerto in D minor, the Octet and the ViolinSonata in F minor, Opus 4. Rietz died of consumption in 1832 andMendelssohn then dedicated to his memory the slow movement of his StringQuintet, Opus 18. Julius Rietz went on to a distinguished career, serving asprofessor of composition at Mendelssohn's Leipzig Conservatory and later asconductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra.
The Violin Sonata in F minor received a particularlycondescending review in 1825 in the Berliner AIigemeine Musikalische Zeitungfrom a critic under the pseudonym of Lukas van Leyden (quoted in part inHeinrich Eduard Jacob: Felix Mendelssohn und seine Zeit, Frankfurt amMain, 1959-60), patronising the two young performers. The first movement startswith an Adagio introduction for the violin alone, followed by an Allegromoderato in which the piano offers the first subject, leading to an A flatmajor second subject, announced by the piano over a sustained bass note. Therepeated exposition is duly followed by a central development and arecapitulation in which the second subject, now in F major, is followed by aminor key closing section. The slow movement, in A flat major, is opened by thepiano statement of the wistful main theme, then taken up by the violin. A shortpiano cadenza leads to an E flat major section, with a violin melodyaccompanied by triplet figuration from the piano. This ends with more dramaticintensity, before a return to the original key and thematic material, nowvaried. The last movement opens emphatically, its opening section repeated,after which the opening motif provides the substance for contrapuntalexploration. An Adagio cadenza for the violin alone is capped by theforceful closing section.
Mendelssohn owed his early musical training to Carl Zelter, who fornearly thirty years directed the Berlin Singakademie and fostered the interestof his pupil and the Berlin public in the music of J.S. Bach. Zelter hadpleased Goethe by his setting of some of the latter's poems, the beginning of awarm friendship, and was responsible for introducing Mendelssohn to Goethe in1821. Zelter's teaching stimulated Mendelssohn's interest in counterpoint andinculcated in him a sound knowledge of classical musical practice.
The Violin Sonata in F major of 1820 is clear evidence of thesoundness of Zelter's teaching and the irrepressible talent of his pupil, inwhom he saw one who might outshine, at this stage, the young Mozart. The sonatastarts with a monothematic first movement, in which much is made of the openingfigure in an Allegro in tripartite classical form. The F minor Andantemoves into F major for the second element of its principal theme. This isfollowed by a variation on the themes and a final version of the F minor theme,which ends the movement. The sonata concludes with a lively Presto, aforetaste of scherzo-type movements to come.
The shorter pieces here included are taken from a volume of exerciseswritten for Zelter between 1819 and 1821, published by the Mendelssohn scholarR. Larry Todd and themselves dated to 1820. The Movement in G minor, classicalin form, frames a G major central section. If this echoes Mozart or Haydn, theAndante in D minor is modelled on Bach in its >contrapuntalthree-voice texture. It is followed by the Fugue in D minor and Fugue in Cminor, both in three-voice texture and perfectly crafted, with a finalcontrapuntal Allegro in C major, exercises that, it is suggested, Mendelssohnwould have taken up his violin to play through with his teac