Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) - Violin Concerto
Which achieves the most polished product: masses of meticulous management and detailed design, sketching of materials, moulding of sketches into drafts, then repeated honing of drafts ? or simply shovelling everything straight out of your head onto the score? Composers such as Beethoven and Prokofiev leant towards the former, whilst the likes of Mozart and Arnold inclined to the latter. Alright, so it boils down a “fluent” composer being one whose brain does all the hard slog on “auto-pilot”, but nevertheless these are essentially different approaches.
Mendelssohn was immensely gifted, multi-talented and unusually fortunate, enjoying the luxury of a very comfortable and relatively trouble-free life in which to ply his prodigious trade. Furthermore, his thorough - and thoroughly conservative - schooling had drummed into him the virtues of the Classical tradition of Mozart and Haydn. By the time he’d grown up, ideals like elegance of form and line were inextricably ingrained. Finally, weighing his large output against his tragically early death, it’s clear that Mendelssohn was at least relatively “fluent”. Small wonder, then, that Schumann dubbed him “the Mozart of the Nineteenth Century.”
Although he had stacks of compositions to his credit, it was only at Berlin University (1826-9) that he finally decided on music as his profession. However, the maturing Mendelssohn inhabited, not the polite Classical world, but one altogether rougher and readier - the early Romantic. Yet, even in his final year at university, what was he doing? Well, one particularly public gesture was to conduct the first performance since Bach’s death of the St. Matthew Passion. By his championship of that then-unfashionable master, Mendelssohn seemed to be nailing his colours to the mast – deliberately distancing himself from the “Romantic Revolutionary Party”.
In fact, Mendelssohn had long been something of a reticent Romantic, filtering the stuff of Romanticism through the purifying membranes of his habitual Classical principles. Inevitably, his music would always disdain crude expressions of passion. The down-side wouldn’t have bothered Mendelssohn much. After his death, in the high Romantic when passionate excess became high fashion, he followed Bach into the “out of favour” bin. Quite simply, many had mistaken his cool classicism for a lack of passion itself. Oops.
Even today, when, with lengthy hindsight, we can readily appreciate Mendelssohn’s many virtues, the ghost of that misapprehension still lingers. For instance, I still hear folk, with a light wash of disparagement, dismiss his sound as “water-coloured”. So what? A master water-colourist is still a master: in crafting his music always with the utmost elegance, wit, poise and fluency, so Mendelssohn expressed his passions.
He started work on his Violin Concerto in 1838, soon after getting wed. Although it was written out in the course of one summer, it had gestated for six years, an uncommonly long time for the “Mozart of the Nineteenth Century”. Why? Partly because of intervening obligations, but mostly because of his unbounded respect and admiration for the violinist Ferdinand David, which aggravated his customary conscientiousness. He was hell-bent on making it as near perfect as he could – and, no matter how well it had served him previously, apparently he wasn’t prepared to risk leaving anything to his “auto-pilot”.
Mendelssohn’s is arguably the first truly Romantic violin concerto. Ignoring the looming shadow of Beethoven’s model, but actively consulting David, Mendelssohn combined a Schubert-like lyrical intensity with a host of technical innovations. First and foremost was a new accent on discourse between orchestra and soloist, with the former having an unprecedentedly active rôle, and the latter an equally unprecedented share of the “accompaniment”.
Reinforcing the integrity of the materials, the three movements play continuously. The cunningly modulated end of the first enables the holding of the bassoon note to start the second (this note can, of course, be held indefinitely whilst the audience prematurely vents its enthusiasm!). The link to the finale is even more breathtaking. I don’t go along with the usual idea, that Mendelssohn’s interpolated allegretto is meant, as one commentator suggested, to “carry the audience without shock from the seriousness of the andante to the humour and gaity of the finale” – a straightforward quiet start would have done that. The theme, distinct yet so teasingly familiar, is actually a highly contracted reference to the first movement’s main subject. This strikes me as the music itself awakening from its reverie and, mindful of labours past, rolling up its sleeves for the job now in hand.
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is hugely popular with both performers and audiences alike. Rightly so, for, sounding as if it had sprung fully formed from the inspired mind of its creator, it is the sparkling jewel in a very considerable crown. This extraordinarily lucid music needs no detailed map to guide the listener’s eager ears - hence this mere summary of some of its many mesmerising landmarks:
1. Allegro molto appassionato. Contrary to custom, the soloist gets first crack at the cracking main theme. Then the violin accompanies the woodwind, who lead off the haunting second subject. Having provided a thorough exposition, Mendelssohn does not repeat it. Far more logically than heretofore, the cadenza follows, not the recapitulation, but the development section. Approaching the cadenza, Mendelssohn engenders a wonderful feeling of reluctance on the soloist’s part to “hog the limelight”, adding point to the cadenza’s conclusion, where the violin graciously beckons the orchestra forward to start the reprise. Then, with no cadenza in the way, Mendelssohn feels free to defer part of the main subject’s reprise to the coda.
2. Andante. The orchestra establishes an “active” accompaniment for the astonishingly beautiful main theme. Forsaking the usual set of distinct variations, Mendelssohn favours an incremental evolution of his freely-flowing lyric. The orchestra steps forward only for the more forceful central subject. Here the violin, double-stopping and what-have you like billio, accepts the job of accompanying itself.
3. Allegretto non troppo – Finale: Allegro molto vivace. Not a rondo, but a deftly-dovetailed sonata. Like an excited puppy the skittering first subject, not content with its own exposition, gambols after the coat-tails of the robust, thrusting second. Through incremental evolution, the playful pestering gradually loosens and softens the subject’s stern demeanour. During the development, this initially contrasted couple end up intimately intertwined in caressing counterpoint (so much for “lacks passion”!). Then, the reprise seems to bypass the first subject altogether! Is this because the second subject involves both subjects – or because they are not really distinct, but simply reflections of one another? Should I spoil Mendelssohn’s delicious teasing? I think not.
© Paul Serotsky
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