Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor

Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 64

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn
BORN: February 3, 1809. Hamburg, then under Napoleonic rule
DIED: November 4, 1847. Leipzig, Saxony

COMPOSED: Carrying out a plan that went back to 1838, Mendelssohn completed the Violin Concerto on September 16, 1844

WORLD PREMIERE: March 13, 1845. Ferdinand David was soloist, with the Danish composer Niels Gade conducting, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus

US PREMIERE: November 24, 1849. Joseph Burke was soloist, with Theodor Eisfeld conducting the Philharmonic Society, at the Apollo Rooms in New York

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— February 1915. Albert Spaulding was soloist, Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2015. Janine Jansen was soloist, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, with timpani and strings

DURATION: About 27 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Ferdinand David was more than the first violinist to play the Mendelssohn Concerto; the work was intended for him from the beginning. David and Mendelssohn had been friends since 1825. When Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843, one of the first faculty appointments he made was David. David was held in the highest regard as soloist, as a model concertmaster, as quartet leader, and teacher. In the history of Mendelssohn’s Concerto, David played a role parallel to that taken a generation later by Joseph Joachim with the Brahms. Mendelssohn’s Concerto is in fact the first in the distinguished series of violin concertos written by pianist-composers with the assistance of eminent violinists.

THE MUSIC  In his G minor and D minor piano concertos, Mendelssohn gives us just enough of an orchestral exordium to propel the soloist into action. In the Violin Concerto, he reduces the orchestra’s initial participation still further. There is only a backdrop for not as much as two seconds of E minor, given an appassionato character by the quietly pulsating drums and plucked basses. Across this, the violin sings a famous melody. The first extended passage for the orchestra is dramatically introduced by the boldly upward-thrusting octaves of the violin; it also gives way quickly to the next solo, a new melody, full of verve, and barely begun by the orchestra before the soloist makes it his own. As in most concertos between Beethoven and Brahms, the orchestra here is not so much partner or rival in dialectic discussion as provider of accompaniment, punctuation, scaffolding, and a bit of cheerleading. Nonetheless, we should not make the mistake of thinking that Mendelssohn’s attention to his orchestra is perfunctory. The workmanship, the sonorous fantasy, the delight in detail are all but Mozartian. The violin dazzles us with brilliant passage work, and that is what Mendelssohn really means us to pay attention to, but at almost any moment in which you choose to listen to what is going on “behind,” you will be rewarded by real activity, not just mechanical strumming. It is as though solo and tutti both managed to be foreground and background at the same time.

The theme that brings the first big change of character  is deliciously scored. The violin has made a graceful landing on its lowest G after a descent of more than three octaves, and it is over that quiet, sustained, and solitary sound of the G that the clarinet (with another clarinet and a pair of flutes) introduces the new tune. The presentation is immediately reversed, with the violin playing the melody and the four winds accompanying. Either way, the combination of wind quartet with a single stringed instrument is wonderfully fresh.

The first movement cadenza is famous. In Classical practice, the cadenza occurs at the joint of recapitulation and coda. Mendelssohn uses it instead at the other crucial harmonic juncture, the recapitulation, the return to the home key after the peregrinations of the development. He prepares this homecoming subtly, allowing himself some delicate anticipations of what it will be like to be in E minor again, managing this maneuver as a gradual subsidence of wonderful breadth and serenity. On the doorstep of home, the orchestra stops and defers to the soloist.

A couple of years earlier, in his Scottish Symphony, Mendelssohn experimented with the idea of going from movement to movement without a break. Here he takes the plan a step further, not merely eliminating the pauses but actually constructing links. The Andante emerges mysteriously from the close of the first movement. This could be one of Mendelssohn’s songs (with or without words). It is a lovely and sweet melody of surprising extension, beautifully harmonized and scored. Listen to the effect, for example, of the woodwinds in the few measures in which they participate. The middle section brings an upsurge of passion and a return to the minor mode. Then the first melody returns, still more beautifully set than before, with the accompanying instruments unable to forget the emotional tremors of the movement’s central section.

Between the Andante and the finale Mendelssohn places another kind of bridge, a tiny and wistful intermezzo. Strings only accompany the violin, which sets off nicely the touch of fanfare that starts the finale. It is sparkling and busy music whose gait allows room for swinging, broad tunes, as well as for the dazzling sixteenth notes of the solo part. Here, too, Mendelssohn delights in the witty play of foreground and background, and so he steers the concerto to its close in a feast of high spirits and with a wonderful sense of “go.”

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings:  Augustin Hadelich with Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra (Avie)  |  Anne-Sophie Mutter with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon Originals)  |  Joshua Bell with Roger Norrington and the Camerata Salzburg (Sony)

DVD: Itzhak Perlman with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony, in San Francisco Symphony at 100 (SFS Media)

ReadingThe Mendelssohn Companion, edited by Douglas Seaton (Greenwood Press)  |  Mendelssohn Remembered, by Roger Nichols (Faber & Faber)  |  Mendelssohn (Master Musicians series), by Philip Radcliffe (Dent & Sons) 

(September 2017)