The E minor Violin Concerto is the blessed offspring of Felix Mendelssohn’s unrelenting perfectionism joined with his magisterial grasp of contemporary musical idioms. One might naturally assume that a composition which flows along so naturally, with such seeming inevitability, must have been created in one glorious burst of lyric inspiration, but such an assumption would be a sentimental error. The concerto was born only after a long and difficult gestation, punctuated by episodes of obsession, distraction, procrastination, and revision. Mendelssohn (1809–47) first floated the idea of writing a concerto for his colleague Ferdinand David as early as 1838, a full seven years before the eventual premiere. It would not be his first violin concerto, there being two preceding examples from the early 1820s. But Mendelssohn was in his early teens in those days, and neither concerto bears the stamp of the master, however spunky they both may be. The new concerto that was taking shape in Mendelssohn’s imagination was to be the product of his full artistic maturity. As it happened, it was to be his last essay in the genre.
Rather than producing yet another acrobatic showpiece, Mendelssohn sought détente between some of the antagonistic elements that plague concerto writing. First of all, he was determined to create an integrated orchestral soundscape, an extremely tall order given the concerto’s basic nature as a vehicle for solo display. Second, and even more challenging, was to shoehorn the genre’s inherent formal puffiness into a solid organic structure. That he would even attempt such a fusion is a testament to his artistic integrity, in an era when most concertos were designed to titillate audiences, annoy critics, and leave the composer laughing all the way to the bank.
Surviving letters between violinist and composer illuminate Mendelssohn’s many trials and retrenchings along his journey toward an acceptable product. He wrote to Ferdinand David in 1838 that the opening melody had “given him no peace,” and later in the year he confessed to being haunted about the violin’s initial statements. He would appear to have dropped work on it shortly thereafter, and began to focus his energies instead on a piano concerto in E minor, which he eventually abandoned. It’s not clear when he actually resumed work on the Violin Concerto (also in E minor), but we do know that the full orchestral score was completed by September 1844. David played its premiere in Leipzig on March 13, 1845, at the Gewandhaus. By 1847, Mendelssohn’s young protegé Joseph Joachim was performing the work, establishing it as a pre-eminent vehicle for gifted young violinists—a role it continues to play to this day.
Mendelssohn achieved a rare textural unity in the work by carefully threading solo passages throughout his orchestral weave, never allowing the violin utter domination of the sonic stage. The first movement opens with the violin stating the primary theme against a muted orchestral accompaniment. It is the orchestra, however, that presents the initial phrase of the secondary theme, while the violin holds a sustained bass note; later, as the celebrated first-movement cadenza reaches its conclusion, it is again the orchestra that re-introduces the primary theme at the recapitulation (return of the opening material).
The cadenza (an extended, improvisatory solo passage usually found near the end of a movement) itself has drawn considerable comment for its unusual placement at the end of the development, serving as a retransition back into the recapitulation. Although not frequently emulated, this device offers a particularly imaginative solution to the cadenza “problem”—i.e., the structural weakening resulting from a cadenza’s interruption.
The first movement ends with a surprising feint by a solo bassoon, which leads into the warmly compassionate second-movement Andante. Another transitional passage eases us into that delectable romp of a finale, so filled with the energies of those zooming sprites of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Popular from the get-go, the concerto easily warrants its great success. It contains no hint whatsoever of its composer’s initial insecurities. Even Felix thought so. He published it.—Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.
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