On 23 May at the Kala Academy, music-lovers will get a singular opportunity hear a work by the great German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) that has only relatively recently (1999) entered the public domain. Why such a long wait?
During his tragically short life, Mendelssohn towered over the cultural life of Europe, as composer, conductor, pianist and organist. His artistic directorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra turned it into the cultural institution it still is to this day. His name was being uttered alongside those of Mozart and Beethoven, so widely was he respected. His renown as a prodigy in fact rivaled that of Mozart in Mendelssohn’s lifetime. All that seemed to change rapidly after his death, with rising nationalism and the intolerance that often goes along with such sentiment. Growing anti-Semitism seems to have been a major consideration influencing his father to renounce Judaism. Felix was deliberately not circumcised, and the children were baptized into the Reformed Church in 1816, with Felix taking on the full name Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.
Although Mendelssohn wrote more than 770 works (hundreds of musical manuscripts unpublished at the time of his sudden demise), nearly half of these have never even been performed. His prodigious talent instead of being celebrated, was held up as proof of his ‘facility’ which was cruelly equated with ‘mediocrity’. German poet, essayist and critic Heinrich Heine, himself a converted Jew, reviewed Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul, writing that it was “characterized by a great, strict, very serious seriousness, a determined, almost importunate tendency to follow classical models, the finest, cleverest calculation, sharp intelligence and, finally, complete lack of naïveté. But is there in art any originality of genius without naïveté?”
The more infamous posthumous broadside against Mendelssohn and indeed other artists of Jewish origin came from his envious contemporary, Richard Wagner in his anti-Jewish pamphlet Das Judenthum in der Musik: “[Mendelssohn] has shown us that a Jew may have the amplest store of specific talents, may own the finest and most varied culture, the highest and tenderest sense of honour – yet without all these pre-eminences helping him, were it but one single time, to call forth in us that deep, that heart-searching effect which we await from art…..The washiness and the whimsicality of our present musical style has been…pushed to its utmost pitch by Mendelssohn’s endeavour to speak out a vague, an almost nugatory Content as interestingly and spiritedly as possible.”
Wagner went on to declare Mendelssohn’s music “an icon of degenerate decadence”, and in its wake publishers declined to publish his manuscripts and letters.
Nazi Germany took matters further, adding Mendelssohn’s name to the lengthy list of “forbidden artists”. Mendelssohn’s manuscripts (published and unpublished) which were housed in the basement of the Berlin State Library had to be smuggled out and as a result were temporarily lost to the Western world, as they fell behind the Iron Curtain after WWII.
The work we will hear on 23 May at the Kala Academy is Mendelssohn’s concerto for violin, piano and strings in D minor. It was written in 1822 when Mendelssohn was just thirteen, for a private concert with his close friend and violin teacher Eduard Rietz. Mendelssohn revised it on 3 July 1822, adding timpani and winds.
It along with hundreds of other manuscripts was “lost” for reasons just mentioned. It was only revisited in 1960, with a miniature score published by Astoria Verlag Berlin. Six years later, the work was published in a reduction for violin and two pianos. In 1999, the 1960 miniature score was reissued in a scholarly edition with the wind and timpani parts added. We will hear the arrangement for string orchestra, as was Mendelssohn’s original intent.
The Mendelssohn Project has compiled the world’s most complete list of Felix Mendelssohn’s works, led by music director Stephen Somary and drawing upon “decades of thorough research by prominent Mendelssohn experts”. It equally focuses on the oeuvre of Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister Fanny, who was a composer in her own right, and whose death caused such grief to her brother that he died from a series of strokes a mere six months later. The Mendelssohn Project has the additional objective of recording their complete published and unpublished works.
The concerto for violin, piano and strings is a grandiose work for a thirteen-year old. It has three movements in typical fast-slow-fast fashion (Allegro-Adagio- Allegro molto) and its performance time is close to forty minutes.
Comparisons are inevitably made with Mendelssohn’s “other” violin concerto. We all know his famous violin concerto in E minor, but Mendelssohn also wrote a violin concerto, in D minor, the same key as the “double” concerto for violin and piano, just a year earlier. This work had also lain ‘dormant’ until violinist Yehudi Menuhin championed its revival and publication. The D minor violin concerto is also similarly constructed, with two allegros surrounding a central andante of great beauty.
In the “double concerto”, we hear a precocious understanding of the need to balance two completely different solo instruments; and the orchestra is allotted moments of beauty and brilliance befitting a tripartite conversation between equals. The central Adagio has the poetry and nobility of spirit of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, with soulful cadenzas for both instruments. It is ‘reminiscent’ in some ways of the opening of his string quartet (no. 2, opus 13 in A minor) that he would write just five years later.
This work does not yet have the maturity of the ‘highlights’ of Mendelssohn’s compositional achievements as a teenager: his famous ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream overture and his Octet for Strings. The first movement at eighteen minutes seems overly stretched. But there are all the hallmarks of Mendelssohn’s music in this work, to borrow the words of musicologist Jonathan Rhodes Lee: “Mozartean clarity stands comfortably alongside Beethovenian grandeur, the formal creativity of C.P.E. Bach beside the lyrical beauty of Schubert.”
(An edited version of this article was published on 17 May 2015 in the Navhind Times Goa India)