Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in Em, op. 64

performed by the Royal Philharmonic under Thomas Beecham, Jascha Heifetz, violin
It’s been piano, piano, piano… Concertos, sonatas, other stuff. Was definitely on a piano kick for a while, and still have lots of other pieces on the back burner that didn’t make this round of keyboard music.
Time to change things up a bit, I figure. I have a few string-focused pieces in my rotation at the moment, but this one actually premiered TODAY! Well, today as in ‘on this date 170 years ago.’ In 1844. It was a Wednesday.
I’d been picking out some violin pieces I try to commemorate my acquisition of a violin (gifted to me!) by a dear old friend a few months ago, but it would have broken up my train of thought at the time. I can’t remember quite when that was, but I was looking up other famous violin concerti (I’d only come upon the Sibelius because it was included in a box set of his complete symphonies and I rather stumbled upon it. How glad I am…). That one also piqued my interest in the other standard works in the violin repertoire. A quick google search and a browsing of a few sites and lists will reveal that Beethoven, Bruch, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Schoenberg, Beethoven (which, interestingly was considered “revived” and praised in a performance also in 1844, the year of the premiere of this piece, performed by the young Joseph Joachim, and conducted by Mendelssohn himself! Small world!), Berg, Stravinsky, and others, depending on who you ask (Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bartok, Elgar, Mozart, not to leave out Paganini, and the list goes on), but those are the biggies. I don’t often see Mozart or Paganini or Elgar or Dvorak in top ten lists, it seems.
In any case, Mendelssohn’s work here is

almost always in any list of the best or most famous or most popular violin concerti, and is apparently one of the first from the Romantic era that a violin student will learn or perform, and is thus one of the most recorded violin concerti ever. It started an idea proposed to Mendelssohn’s friend Ferdinand David, a violinist and then concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. It began in 1838, but took six more years to complete and was published in 1844, premiered in 1845 with David performing (I think). In those six years, the composer consulted David with regards to the piece. While I feel it to be BARELY Romantic, Wikipedia tells me that while it “consists of three movements in a standard fast–slow–fast structure and each movement follows a traditional form, the concerto was innovative and included many novel features for its time.” There are a few I noticed, and mentioned in the same article, such as the “through-composed form”, all movements played attacca (as with the Liszt from last week), and the near-immediate entrance of the soloist (ditto Liszt). As for the others, I did notice them upon listening again. The placement of the cadenza is different, and some other things I guess. I find it interesting to note that the reason for the attacca throughout the piece was to prevent audiences from clapping between movements, which was apparently expected at the time, while it is now frowned upon. This would have been surprising to his audiences, but kept the piece moving. Crowd control. That’s some information about the background and structure of the piece, but now let’s run through it. Some (or most) of this is bound to be ridiculously opinionated and/or wrong.

Personally? I think it’s okay. (In the interest of full disclosure, I considered for just a split second ending this post right there. And then I thought better of it.) I even asked a violinist friend of mine her thoughts on this piece as I was listening to it, and she said she had none. Not interested, never learned it, don’t listen to it, don’t know a ton about it, not a fan. So then I didn’t feel so bad for actually not really being in love with this piece.
It was bound to happen. There’s no way anyone can ever really love everything, and this is one of those pieces for me. It’s fun, and enjoyable and moving and delightful, and that’s all well and good, but I am not passionate about it, it does not move or inspire me, and I don’t want to listen to it again for another while. Truth be told, this was the only version of the piece I listened to. I had it, and I understand Heifetz is one of the greatest ever, so I decided it was good enough for me.
I will say that I find the opening movement satisfyingly grabbing. The theme (that pervades the entire piece; maybe more that idea than the actual theme) is a nice one as it comes in over dramatic sounding strings. It sounds very Jewish and almost yearning. In this recording, despite it not being the best quality, the violin is still string and crisp. It’s speaking on the stage (figurative) that the orchestra plays under it, as if it’s the spokesperson for the whole ensemble. There’s something slightly tender and emotional about. It’s expressive, although there are times where I wish Heifetz would slow down or relish a few points in the piece. I know absolutely nothing about violin technique or what’s frowned upon or expected or anything, but I feel like a little portamento or an extra dose of expressiveness would have made this even more drippy with feeling. Perhaps that is not the style. Although this is certainly a Romantic work, I find it far less so than many other pieces. I consider 1844 to be…. early Romantic, especially coming from Mendelssohn. This was one of his last large-scale works (the last?) for orchestra, and even though this would have been around the same time that Chopin and Liszt and Schumann and many others were getting their Romantic groove on, I don’t feel like this is as… full-on Romantic. Having mentioned Chopin, you may find it interesting that Mendelssohn was born a year before Chopin, and died a year before him as well. They were both 38. Continuing on, I find a particularly enjoyable section of this movement to be about three minutes and a half minutes in, after that Jewish sobby theme has gone on for a while. It’s definitely in Em, and you can feel the minor key. But at one little breathe of fresh air, it gets bright. I haven’t so much as cracked the score, but to my ear, it feels like it modulates to the (or at least some) major key, and it feels like a nice little relief. The first movement is the longest of the three, and makes up almost half of the piece. This little passage provides at least some respite from the rest of the movement. It’s a lot of the same to me, with acrobatics and fancy things from the violin. There aren’t a lot of places here where we get that big, full, intense spine-tingling Romantic full-orchestra sound, and the lighter, more delicate-feeling orchestration makes even this first movement, the biggest one, feel almost chambery.
The cadenza (I suppose) comes a little after halfway through the piece, and it does hold one’s attention. Watching Hilary Hahn’s performance of this piece made me even more impressed. As I am still barely able to play some scales on the violin, I cannot hear in passing the technique or talent it takes to make certain sounds on the violin or what is involved or what it looks like. Things here like ricochet bowing I was entirely unfamiliar with. Seeing it helps. This happens in the cadenza, and it does sound pretty cool, and the violin is doing its thing there as the orchestra comes back with the opening theme in a fuller orchestration. It’s the same material in different ways, but the end is quite exciting as it kind of all speeds up and races toward the end.
The second movement, as with this entire piece, is played attacca. A note from the bassoon leads us into a tranquil 6/8 slow movement. The violin obviously takes center stage because it’s a concerto; that goes without saying, but it feels like Chopin’s first piano concerto, more like soloist and friends, and less like an interaction between soloist and orchestra. They seem to play a much more background role. The middle of this movement does grow more intense and dramatic, almost saddening or heartbroken, but then calms back down, almost to nothing.
The third movement begins with a statement that calls back to the feeling of the first movement. It’s emotional, almost pained, Jewish, and expressive. It doesn’t last. About 45 seconds in, there is a declaration by the brass, almost fanfare in nature, and the violin calls back. This happens twice, and a lively, fancy, very catching melody is introduced by the violin with very slight accompaniment and ditties by the orchestra; the clarinet is especially noticeable in some places. This almost feels like an encore piece. The orchestra finally thunders in, and it feels like everyone is back together. There’s no hint of the sadness or melancholy that frankly, kind of makes this piece not so enjoyable for me. Stunning technical runs and bits by the violin make this five-minute final movement energetic and enjoyable. It finally makes me feel like smiling. It’s cute and dainty in places, dancy and flowing in others. This is by far the most enjoyable movement for me. There’s something exciting and passionate about it, and it builds to a satisfying end.
I suppose my biggest gripe with this piece is just part of what’s inherent to the piece. If I want a drippy, overdramatic, gorgeous Romantic concerto, I suppose I should reach for Sibelius or Tchaikovsky. Although Mendelssohn was around at the same time as (almost exactly the same time as) Chopin, who I consider one of the heroes of the Romantic style. That being said, I find the musical expression here to be largely… Classical in nature. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just not what I tend to be in love with. At its best, I find Mozart or Haydn to be cheery and delightful and make me smile, and at its worst, I find it to be really good background music, or downright boring. This isn’t to that point, but it’s certainly not my favorite.
I should interrupt myself here by saying…. I am familiar with exactly zero of Mendelssohn’s other works. Almost. I quite enjoy his Hebrides overture. And that’s about it. So I haven’t any idea how this compares to his other pieces, but at a blind listen, I would have first described this as late Classical rather than early Romantic.
It’s also apparently one of the most inspiring and most plagiarized pieces in the history of ever. It inspired many other composers to imitate some of the changes or styles that Mendelssohn used here, and some apparently go so far as to be downright copycats. Would I like to be able to write a violin piece like this? Yes. Would I like to be as knowledgeable about music and form and structure as the composer? Yes. Can I still say I do not love this piece? Also yes.
Supporting my Classical comments, I found the quote below by Richard Taruskin regarding Mendelssohn and his writing style in his brief existence:

he never outgrew his precocious youthful style. […] He remained stylistically conservative […] feeling no need to attract attention with a display of ‘revolutionary’ novelty. Throughout his short career he remained comfortably faithful to the musical status quo – that is, the “classical” forms, as they were already thought of by his time. His version of romanticism, already evident in his earliest works, consisted in musical “pictorialism” of a fairly conventional, objective nature (though exquisitely wrought)

Again, I am not familiar with hardly any of his other works, but I am glad to see this at least. Also, Mendelssohn was a fantastically talented painter (and a very strange-looking twelve-year-old).
As an addendum to the above rant, I must say that I am trying to care less about being politically or musically correct. I want to be as informed as possible, but there is nowhere I can go (and there shouldn’t be) to check to see if my opinion is ‘correct’. For example, there were some statements in the Wikipedia article contradicting my comments about how this concerto, like Chopin’s first, uses the orchestra much like a background instrument of accompaniment rather than an active voice in the piece. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how it sounded to me.
Listening to music is always a journey, primarily emotionally, sometimes mentally or scientifically or technically, but always a journey. Sometimes it’s a walk around your block, other’s it’s an exploration through a dark and foreign land; sometimes it’s a stroll down an unfamiliar alley right at your backdoor, and others it’s an escape to another world. I don’t always listen to music to challenge my musical knowledge or learn all the textbook info there is to know about a piece. I tend to enjoy that when I can sink my teeth into something and learn how it ticks, but other times, I just want to listen. Sometimes I don’t even want to do that. Last week’s piece, another Romantic-era concerto, came in the opposite way. I approached it as absolute music to enjoy for the sheer pleasure of listening, but upon digging a little deeper, I was buried in fascinating themes and structures and ideas recurring throughout the piece. I was blown away, almost overwhelmed.
This week, it’s the opposite. I had high hopes of coming to understand this one, and I walk away from it satisfied with the little bit that I know.

 

Maybe next time Mendelssohn. See you soon, violin.
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