February 15 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
February 16 – Friday at 11:00 a.m.*
February 16 – Friday at 8:00 p.m.
February 17 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.
MENDELSSOHN’S VIOLIN CONCERTO
Violin Concerto in E minor, Opus 64
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
At a Glance
Mendelssohn made the first sketches for his Violin Concerto in 1838, but the actual composition took place largely in 1844. It was first performed on March 13, 1845, at a concert of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, with Ferdinand David as soloist and conducted by Niels Gade.
This concerto runs about 25 minutes in performance. Mendelssohn scored it for an orchestra of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings, plus the solo violin. The work’s three movements are played without pause.
The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in November 1919, under Nikolai Sokoloff and with violinist Toscha Seidel. Since that time, it has been presented regularly, played by some of the most well-known soloists of the day, including Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Midori, Hilary Hahn, and Christian Tetzlaff, as well as by several of the Orchestra’s concertmasters.
About the Music
One of the cornerstones of the concerto repertoire, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is one of the most beloved symphonic works ever written.
At age 35, Mendelssohn could already look back on an international career of a decade and a half. He had been able to turn his fortunate personal situation to advantage and fully enjoy the benefits of a privileged family background (his father was a wealthy banker who was able to provide him with the best education and even put an orchestra at his disposal to play his early works). Since 1837, Mendelssohn was himself happily married and was, by 1844, the father of four. His first name, Felix (Latin for “happy”), appeared to be a good omen for his life. (No one could then have predicted Mendelssohn’s tragic death only three years later.)
This concerto was a gift of friendship to a musician particularly close to Mendelssohn’s heart. Mendelssohn had known Ferdinand David (1810-1873) since boyhood, and shortly after he took over the directorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, he invited the violinist to be his concertmaster. (David was to hold this position for 37 years, serving long after Mendelssohn’s untimely death.)
David shared with Mendelssohn many of the administrative duties at the orchestra. They also frequently performed chamber music together, with Mendelssohn at the piano. Mendelssohn’s fondness for David can be seen from this passage from a letter written to the violinist: “I realize that there are not many musicians who pursue such a straight road in art undeviatingly as you do, or in whose active course I could feel the same intense delight that I do in yours.”
This was written in 1838, the year Mendelssohn made the first sketches for the Violin Concerto. Other commitments, however, prevented him from completing the work until 1844; the concerto remained one of his last symphonic compositions (followed only by the oratorio Elijah).
The concerto seems perfectly to reflect the composer’s sunny disposition. In this work, as elsewhere in Mendelssohn’s music, Romantic passion is always tempered by Classical restraint, and tender lyrical feelings are balanced by light, even humorous moments. Violinistic virtuosity goes hand in hand with a depth of expression achieved only by the greatest masters.
One of Mendelssohn’s most innovative touches comes at the very beginning of the concerto, where he dispensed with the usual orchestral exposition and introduced the solo instrument, with a soaring melody, immediately at the outset. The violin remains the center of attention throughout the entire work, with only a few tutti [“all” instruments] sections where the soloist doesn’t play.
In another striking departure from norms, the movements of the concerto are played without pause. It wasn’t the only time Mendelssohn had the movements of his larger works played with no breaks (he had done the same earlier, in the “Scottish” Symphony), but in the concerto he inserted short connecting passages between the movements. After the first movement, a single note held by a solo bassoon provides a link to the beautiful Andante, and a brief melodic passage serves as a bridge between the second and third movements. The speed of this latter passage, scored for solo violin and string orchestra, is halfway between the preceding slow and subsequent fast tempos. The various moods and sentiments — those of the passionate first, the lyrical second and the graceful third movements — all flow directly from one another, instead of presenting them as separate entities.
The written-out cadenza of the first movement (which may be, at least in part, by David), is also more strongly integrated into the movement than was the case in earlier concertos. Mendelssohn moved it from its traditional place at the end of the movement to the middle, making it grow organically out of the development section and resolve just as naturally in the recapitulation. Nor does the cadenza end when the orchestra re-enters; it continues while the flute, the oboe, and the first violins play the main theme — another example of the kind of seamless transition between sections that was so important to Mendelssohn. The charge, often repeated in the past, that Mendelssohn was a conservative whose music contains no significant innovations, rests on a serious misconception. —Peter Laki © 2018
Peter Laki is a visiting associate professor at Bard College and a frequent lecturer and writer on music.