MENDELSSOHN: Concerto in D minor for Violin and String Orchestra

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809, and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847. Following the Mendelssohn family’s conversion from Judaism to Lutheranism—the children in 1816, the father in 1822—the members of the family appended the second name of Bartholdy to their surname; accordingly, the composer is often referred to as Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. He composed his D minor Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra in 1822 for his friend Eduard Rietz, and one imagines that Rietz probably performed its premiere at one of the Sunday orchestral concerts that took place at the Mendelssohns’ home in Berlin. It did not appear in print until 130 years later, when Yehudi Menuhin oversaw an edition published in New York in 1952. To Menuhin went the honor of the “modern” premiere of this concerto, which was long forgotten when he performed it at Carnegie Hall in New York City on February 4, 1952, with Leon Pommers playing a piano reduction. Menuhin reported in the recital program that he had obtained the music from a Mendelssohn descendent in London the year before, and he billed his performance as the world premiere. The first and only San Francisco Symphony performances, in May 2002, were led by Michael Tilson Thomas and featured SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. Performance time: about twenty-two minutes.

The numbers don’t lie. Mendelssohn was born in 1809, so when he composed this piece in 1822, he was thirteen years old. “Talent,” remarked a British wit, “is nature’s way of being unfair.” If this is so, nature was at its most unfair when it created Felix Mendelssohn, perhaps the most astonishing prodigy in the history of music. He achieved absolute musical fluency at a young age—fluency as both a composer and a performer. Robert Schumann, one of the most perspicacious music critics of Mendelssohn’s time, called him the “Mozart of the nineteenth century; the most brilliant among musicians.” But even in such a lofty comparison Mendelssohn fares well. If we lost everything Mozart wrote before he turned eighteen, we would hardly feel the impact, whereas a similar deletion in Mendelssohn’s catalogue would deprive the world of such irreplaceable masterpieces as his delightful Octet and his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Half his life earlier, when he was nine, Mendelssohn both gave his debut piano recital (a private affair in which he played Franz Xaver DuÓek’s Concert militaire) and heard one of his psalm settings performed by the Berlin Singakademie. By the time he was twenty-one, a year before he wrote his much-loved Piano Concerto No. 1, he had been offered—and had turned down—the music professorship of the University of Berlin.

In Mendelssohn’s case, the talent was supported by privilege. He was born into a family that was cultured and wealthy; his grandfather was the noted philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and his father, Abraham, was a supremely successful banker (one remembered for his astute observation that he was destined to go down in history as his father’s son and his son’s father). As a result, young Felix, his gifted sister Fanny Cäcilie, and their younger sister Rebekka and brother Paul, enjoyed advantages as they moved through childhood. Even as youngsters, the Mendelssohn children hobnobbed with the rich and famous; Felix, for example, struck up a bizarrely intimate friendship with the aged author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who seemed never to tire of his young interlocutor’s boundless curiosity. Each of the Mendelssohn youngsters received a well-rounded education, with Felix mastering Classical and modern languages, writing poetry, and polishing his considerable skills as a landscape painter and an artist in pen-and-ink. Felix and Fanny profited from the finest music instruction that money could buy, with Felix studying both piano and violin in addition to taking composition lessons from Carl Friedrich Zelter (whose other students included Otto Nicolai, Carl Loewe, and Giacomo Meyerbeer). In fact, Zelter spoke quite highly of Mendelssohn’s ability with the fiddle. In a letter to Goethe, penned on March 11, 1823, he reported, “My Felix has entered upon his fifteenth year. He grows under my very eyes. His wonderful pianoforte playing I may consider as quite exceptional. He might also become a great violin player.”

Mendelssohn traveled widely as a young man, and, thanks to his connections in cultural circles, found that useful doors opened to him both at home and abroad. So it was that the trip in which he first met Goethe, in 1821, also brought him into contact with the distinguished pianist-and-composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who was impressed by the young prodigy’s piano-playing (which, at their meeting, was pressed into service for a keyboard transcription of the Overture to Le nozze di Figaro as well as sight-reading Mozart and Beethoven autographs). The following year, the family spent a three-month summer vacation in Switzerland, and the journey there furnished the opportunity to meet Louis Spohr and Ferdinand Hiller, among other musical personalities. All of these eminences served as models for the young Mendelssohn, who absorbed musical information like a sponge; many of his early works reflect the shift from Classicism to Romanticism that such composers were then charting.

One of the many pleasant perks young Mendelssohn enjoyed was having a private orchestra at his disposal to try out his new compositions at every-other-Sunday musicales that were instituted in 1822 at the family home in Berlin (the Mendelssohns having moved from Hamburg in 1811). Many of the composer’s early works were unveiled at these gatherings, among them several of his twelve string symphonies, some light operas, and a quantity of piano pieces and chamber music (including what would become his first published work, the Piano Quartet in C minor, Opus 1). Concertos were played, too, including the five (!) that Mendelssohn produced between 1822 and 1824: one for piano, one for violin, two for two pianos, and one for violin and piano. In all of these compositions we glimpse Mendelssohn still in his formative years. These works exhibit abundant inspiration, limitless enthusiasm, and genuinely remarkable technique. What they do not yet display is the stringent self-criticism to which Mendelssohn would later subject his work. These works were crucial to Mendelssohn’s development, and they are full of fine stuff—sometimes overfull in a way that his later selectivity would not have permitted.

At about the time Felix was writing his D minor Violin Concerto his sister Fanny, three years his elder, was falling in love with the Prussian court painter Wilhelm Hensel, whom she would marry in 1829. The next year their only child, Sebastian, would come into the world, and he would grow up to produce an extensive chronicle of the Mendelssohn clan, which he published in 1879. Three years later his book appeared in English under the title The Mendelssohn Family (1729-1847) from Letters and Journals, translated by none other than Felix Mendelssohn’s dear friend Karl Klingemann, who, in 1829, had accompanied the composer on the famous trip to Scotland that inspired The Hebrides (aka Fingal’s Cave Overture). It is to this book that we owe the information that the D minor Violin Concerto was composed “for Rietz.”

Eduard Rietz was a native Berliner, born there in 1802, but the age disparity of seven years put him more-or-less on an intellectual par with young Felix. Rietz studied violin with his father, who served for fifteen years in the Berlin Court Orchestra and made his concert debut in 1818. The following year he became the orchestra’s concertmaster, the position he held when Mendelssohn wrote this concerto for him. He was a frequent presence in the Mendelssohn home, is known to have been playing string quartets with Mendelssohn as early as 1820, and was blessed with the dedication of the composer’s F minor Violin Sonata (Opus 4) and his Octet for Strings (Opus 20), in addition to the D minor Violin Concerto. In 1829 Rietz served as concertmaster for the historic performance in which Mendelssohn conducted the first revival of the Saint Matthew Passion since the death of Bach. In fact, it had been Rietz who copied out the entire score of that work so it could be presented to Mendelssohn as a Christmas present in 1823, and he also transcribed the instrumental parts for the premiere six years later, assisted by his younger brother Julius, a notable cellist, Bach fanatic, and eventual director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Eduard was on the way to becoming an accomplished conductor, too, when he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1832, a few months after his twenty-ninth birthday. (Franz Liszt broke the news to Mendelssohn.) Mendelssohn was despondent and worked through his grief by writing a new slow movement for the String Quintet in A major (Opus 18) in memory of his departed friend—“lanky old Rietz,” as he sometimes called him.

The language of the D minor Violin Concerto is redolent of the eighteenth century, reminding us that Mendelssohn was inherently the most Classical of Romanticists. The concerto’s opening theme is downright Haydnesque, a deliberate, “stalking” motif played unison by the orchestra. It could have been written in 1770, or even earlier, but then a second theme appears, and its sighing quality leads us towards more recognizably Romantic territory. The introduction reaches an abrupt conclusion, after which the solo violin enters, playing a new theme. The second subject of the soloist’s exposition includes a surprising modulation so tender as to recall Schubert (whose own Unfinished Symphony dates from the same year). Much virtuosic figuration ensues; if it adds little to the movement’s overall momentum, at least it provides a good workout for the soloist. Every now and again—and this is the joy of a piece such as this—the attentive ear discerns a moment that sounds completely Mendelssohnian; one such occurs not long before the end of the movement, a fleeting gesture that prefigures an exquisite melody that would figure in the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream four years later.

The opening of the Andante is again very much in the spirit of Haydn, yet before the opening theme is out it reveals an unmistakably Romantic piquancy and an underpinning of proto-Victorian harmonies. Shortly thereafter the composer achieves a captivating effect when violins and cellos sing in counterpoint against the gently repeating notes of the middle strings. The soloist introduces the main part of the movement with some private musing in the form of a cadenza.

The finale is one of those early-Mendelssohn movements where everything comes together in delightful proportion. The vivacious principal theme has a memorable, Romany-tinged character, and, apart from its several reappearances in this free rondo, we hear Mendelssohn develop its possibilities by fragmenting it into little cells, trying it out in counterpoint against itself, and even transposing it into the major mode. It’s also a bit of an eccentric movement, with the soloist interrupting the brisk proceedings to utter some soulful phrases through cadenza-like passages. But vitality carries the day. In the course of this four-and-a-half-minute finale the thirteen-year-old Mendelssohn proved that he had mastered one of the most important lessons a composer can learn, which is to leave the audience smiling at the final cadence.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Mayumi Seiler with Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia (Black Box)  |  Isabel van Keulen, with Lev Markiz and the Amsterdam New Sinfonietta (BIS) 

Reading: Philip Radcliffe’s Mendelssohn in the Master Musicians series (Dent)  |  Gentle Genius: The Story of Felix Mendelssohn, by George R. Marek (Thomas Crowell)