Mozart and Mendelssohn
Mozart and Mendelssohn
When people of exceptional skill develop their ability at a young age, should we put them straight to work? Clearly that was acceptable practice two centuries ago with respect to musical prodigies, and to some extent we still allow it in certain instances, such as fourteen- or fifteen-year-old tennis players, footballers, pop musicians, classical violinists, and pianists. The usual accompanying advice to such employment is to be aware of “burnout” - it seems that the consequence of early exploitation of talent can lead to difficulties in maintaining a balanced outlook. By comparison with today’s young talents, perhaps Mozart and Mendelssohn experienced less pressure, with the absence of electronic media and a population one-tenth of today’s, although it is entirely probable that overwork brought on their early demise at similar ages.
In the years 1821 to 1823, when Mendelssohn first became a teenager, he composed twelve symphonies for string instruments—the first seven of them in 1821. At the time, he was taking music lessons from Carl Zelter, one of the first nineteenth-century enthusiasts to revive the music of Bach, and a friend of Goethe, to whom he introduced Mendelssohn. The string symphonies show Mendelssohn’s early skill in composition, albeit with influences of composers from the previous century. Later in life he regarded them as immature works—too derivative in comparison to his later style. Fortunately they survive for our pleasure and as evidence of how his musical mind was developing. After twelve were completed, No. 13 was begun (in 1823)—a substantial first movement with a slow introduction in the style of a baroque French overture. Here we may hear hints of Handel and Bach in the structure, and even occasionally Beethoven in the harmony, but Mendelssohn’s stamp is still apparent in the suddenly soft passages towards the end of the fugal Allegro molto. There were no more movements to follow as this work was never completed—Mendelssohn now turned his attention to writing his first symphony for full orchestra in the same key.
It can’t be often that a composer writes a concerto for a violinist born in the same house after the composer has moved away, but that is what happened with the second and more famous of Mendelssohn’s two violin concertos. The virtuoso violinist Ferdinand David (1810-1873) happened to be born in Mendelssohn’s former residence in Hamburg, and in 1845 premiered the second concerto in E Minor. After Mendelssohn died, David was given the manuscript of the earlier D Minor Concerto by Mendelssohn’s wife. This earlier concerto can be seen as a model for the later one in some respects, but was composed for Eduard Rietz (1802-1832), who at the time of composition (1822) gave Mendelssohn violin lessons and later (in 1826) became the founder of the Berlin Philharmonic Society. Mendelssohn was friends and played string quartets with Eduard and his cellist brother, Julius, dedicating several works to him, including the Octet and the F Minor Violin Sonata. Since we can’t be sure of any performances taking place in the nineteenth century, credit for the premiere goes to Yehudi Menuhin for his 1952 performance in New York.
Unlike the more famous later concerto, which is scored for full orchestra, the D Minor Concerto is scored for string orchestra accompaniment. However, there are some similarities with the later work, including the linking of the slow movement into the finale, the written-out multiple cadenzas interspersed with tutti passages, the use of violin harmonics, and solo passagework that utilizes broken chords. Performances of this concerto are heard less frequently than the later one, not least because of the difficulty of interpreting the style—most violinists’ familiarity with later Romantic concerti often draws soloists into playing this early work in a similarly romantic manner, but this is a much more classically inspired piece. We can hear this classical influence right from the beginning, and indeed the second theme that starts in the fifth bar bears a close resemblance to one from Haydn’s La Passione Symphony, No. 49 (1768). There are also hints of Mozart’s D Major Violin Concerto in the first movement and a more classically informed performance will bring it more consistency of style. There are glimpses of Mendelssohn’s later musical personality in places, such as near the end of the first and third movements, and it can be fun to listen for these moments whilst appreciating the virtuosity of the violin playing.
String Symphony No. 6 is very classical in style, but is still very assured in its structure. It is not necessary to know that it was written by a twelve-year-old in order to appreciate the skill that went into its creation. The lasting impression after hearing it is that of the pleasure with which it seems to have been written. In the first movement Mendelssohn seems to have enjoyed the challenge of combining two melodies simultaneously, one fast-moving and the other slow. The second Minuet takes delight in interrupting a religious-sounding chorale (one that could almost have been plucked from a Bach Passion) with fast energetic running passages, like children running into a church. The noble-sounding first Minuet contrasts melodies in widely differing registers—bass to treble and in between—using the different instruments of the orchestra. In fact this attention to voicing could be considered to be the main focus in Mendelssohn’s writing of the piece, since the balance between the registers is artfully exploited in all the movements. This is particularly true both in this Minuet and in the Prestissimo finale. Witty use of sudden silences and restarts in the Finale complete the wholesome fun.
If this program had included Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 it would have been difficult not to be reminded of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. Such was the influence of Mozart’s creativity that many (if not all) subsequent composers were unable to avoid being influenced by his genius. As an example, even though we think of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony as being completely original, the first nine notes of his third movement are the same notes (transposed) as the first nine notes of the last movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony.
In 1788, in a remarkable burst of inspiration, Mozart wrote his last three symphonies in the space of two months. Perhaps he had been carrying the music around in his head for some time, but it remains the case that he recorded the completion dates of these symphonies as 26th June (No. 39), 25th July (No. 40) and 10th August (No. 41). No. 40 was revised very slightly by the addition of clarinet parts, probably a couple of years later, but the earlier version with flute, oboes, and bassoons in the woodwind section will be used for this performance. Symphonies at this time often used trumpets and timpani too, which Mozart exploited in his 39th and 41st symphonies, but the 40th seems to be more inspired by the Sturm and Drang style of Haydn’s middle period, demonstrated not least by the omission of these instruments.
Only two of Mozart’s forty-one symphonies are in a minor key: No. 40 and the earlier G Minor Symphony, No. 25, which also uses no trumpets or timpani. What these symphonies do have instead of trumpets is high horn parts. The horn in B-flat alto, which Mozart used in both the G Minor symphonies, is in fact the same length as a natural trumpet in B-flat: 9 feet of tube. (That is twice as long as a standard modern B-flat trumpet with valves, which had yet to be invented.) In No. 40, while the first horn is in B-flat, the second is in G, allowing the composer more possibilities for varied minor key harmonies, since more notes are available between the two keys of horn. There are few precedents for this technique of orchestration, but two examples can be found in Haydn’s Sturm and Drang Symphonies, No. 44 in E Minor and No. 52 in C Minor. Only a handful of other composers mastered the art of combining horns in different keys at this time, despite the fact that Handel first demonstrated it effectively in his opera Giulio Cesare in 1724.
The Symphony is in standard four-movement form: fast movement, slow movement, Minuet and Trio, fast Finale. Unusual for its time is the way the first movement begins with the accompaniment starting before the melody. (This technique was later emulated by many composers, notably also by Mendelssohn in his E Minor Violin Concerto.) The music is full of urgency and an increasing sense of tension, with a dramatic pace similar to the darker moments of Mozart’s late operas. The most light-hearted moment in the whole symphony is in the Trio section of the Minuet, where for a brief while there is an absence of harmonic tension and counterpoint and more focus on lyricism. Even the E-flat Major slow movement, which starts in a lighter vein, ventures into distant keys and troubling chromatic undercurrents, perhaps indicative of the financial worries that Mozart had at this time.
The Minuet is one which might be less easy to dance to: it has accents and syncopations that might be designed to throw the dancers off their footwork, while the imitative entries in different instruments might make it difficult to know which part of the phrase matches the step. The Minuet was such a popular dance in the eighteenth century that it was expected to feature in any symphony. However, in the future, such adventurousness with its character led away from the dance form towards a Scherzo in the work of future symphonists, as heard in works such as Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.
Many commentators have remarked on the extraordinary and turbulent nature of the music of the final movement. In particular, the development section at the start of its second half has a passage where every note of a chromatic scale is used in unison except for G, the key of the piece. Some have suggested that this led towards the music of Schoenberg and Webern and their twelve-tone technique. Certainly, for a few measures it is not clear what key the music is heading towards. And when it is clear, the music has so many lines to follow in different instruments that the intensity of the fugal writing is thrillingly unsettling. Its energy is impossible to ignore and the scale of its musical argument makes for compelling listening.