Violin Concerto

Felix Mendelssohn

Born in Hamburg, Germany, February 3, 1809; died in Leipzig, Germany, November 4, 1847

 

During the years he served as director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Felix Mendelssohn was blessed with an outstanding concertmaster Ferdinand David, one of the 19th century's finest and most versatile violinists. As early as 1835, the composer promised David a concerto to show off his remarkable abilities. But the concerto did not appear for nearly a decade, despite the violinist’s frequent reminders, preserved in some charmingly wheedling letters.

This delay was uncharacteristic of Mendelssohn, usually a man who promptly fulfilled his obligations, musical or otherwise. But the early 1840s were particularly trying times for him. Already in demand all over Europe as both a composer and a performer, Mendelssohn in 1841 was summoned to Berlin (his family's home) by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia to be his court musician and establish a grandiose new conservatory. For three years, the composer dutifully served the king’s constantly changing whims while longing to return to Leipzig. The enchanting incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was about the only good thing to come out of this frustrating period. As soon as he could gracefully extricate himself from Berlin, Mendelssohn turned to the long-delayed concerto and completed it in September 1844. It was premiered by David with the Leipzig Gewandhaus on March 13, 1845.

Generations of violinists and audiences can attest that the concerto — one of the most perfect ever written for this instrument — was worth the wait. As Brahms would later do with his Violin Concerto for Joseph Joachim, Mendelssohn constantly sought David’s advice and scrupulously tailored his concerto to the violinist’s skills and musical personality.

Mendelssohn is usually regarded as a conservative composer, who despite his allegiance to Romanticism, followed the classical forms and feeling of Mozart and Haydn more closely than did his contemporaries. But Mendelssohn was also a true Romantic who felt free to break the rules of the classical concerto.

First Movement: The breaking of old rules begins immediately as the violinist launches the buoyant principal theme in the second measure, dispensing with the customary orchestral exposition. The key of E minor adds a touch of poignancy to this expansive, openhearted melody.           

The most magical moment of this sonata-form movement comes at the end of the development section when in a hushed, mysterious passage the soloist begins searching for the home key. Just he seems to have found it, Mendelssohn pulls a surprise: launching the soloist’s cadenza, which is customarily placed after the recapitulation just before the movement ends. It concludes with chains of rapid arpeggios that continue as the orchestra reprises the principal theme, thus binding cadenza seamlessly to recapitulation.

At movement's end, we hear a lone bassoon holding onto the pitch B. That note then rises a half step for the new key of C major for the second-movement Andante, which the soloist begins after a brief orchestral bridge passage. This movement is in three-part song form — most appropriate here because Mendelssohn has given the soloist one of his “songs without words.” The middle section interjects passionate agitation amid the lyricism.

Another bridge provides harmonic and tempo transition to the E-major finale. Here we have one of Mendelssohn’s celebrated scherzos: a joyous, scampering romp for the soloist. Conjuring up the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the woodwinds are agile companions to the violin’s gambols.

           

Instrumentation: Two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings.