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Watch our SCO Insights film on Felix Mendelssohn

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As three of the four performances spread out across this online weekend demonstrate, Felix Mendelssohn was a staggeringly talented child prodigy. We might more immediately think of Mozart as the archetypal pint-sized musical genius, from whom masterpieces flowed like water. But if you line up Mendelssohn next to him, the later composer would win hands down. (Though, clearly, it’s not a competition.)

Mendelssohn’s earliest compositions date from 1820, when he was just 11 (they include – deep breath – a violin sonata, a piano trio, several songs, three piano sonatas, choral works and even an opera). We probably shouldn’t be surprised. If we needed an example of what can be achieved by an already talented child given support, encouragement and seemingly limitless opportunities, look no further than little Felix.

He grew up in some of the 19th century’s most privileged and culturally stimulating circumstances, the son of wealthy banker Abraham Mendelssohn, who’d made a fortune during the Napoleonic Wars, and grandson of prominent writer and philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Their house – let’s be honest, it was virtually a palace – on Berlin’s Leipzigerstrasse served as a meeting place for the Prussian capital’s political and cultural elite, and both Felix and his sister Fanny were immersed in the latest thinking across politics, literature, music, philosophy and plenty more. Felix counted among his friends the legendary writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was 60 years his senior, and who later encouraged the young man to embark on his character-defining travels across Italy, Scotland and elsewhere, which would eventually inspire Mendelssohn’s Italian and Scottish symphonies and his Hebrides Overture.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Back to Leipzigerstrasse, where every Sunday morning Felix’s mother would organise an impromptu orchestra to play through the latest popular tunes – including, of course, any new works put together by her son. One of which was Mendelssohn’s Concerto in D minor for Violin and Piano, which he wrote in 1823, at the age of 14. The Concerto received its official premiere on Sunday 25 May 1823.

"If we needed an example of what can be achieved by an already talented child given support, encouragement and seemingly limitless opportunities, look no further than little Felix"

It’s an unusual and somewhat challenging duo of instruments to bring together in a concerto for a teenager. But Mendelssohn was perhaps inspired by a similar Concerto for violin and piano by Hummel, with whom he’d briefly studied as a 12-year-old in 1821, and he was no doubt aware of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (which adds a cello to the violin/piano duo). More importantly, however, it was the logical continuation of Mendelssohn’s own concerto explorations: by that stage, he’d already written a Largo for piano and strings, plus separate piano and violin concertos. His new one, he decided, should be performed by himself at the keyboard and his friend and violin teacher Eduard Rietz on violin, plus a small orchestra of friends.

Following the domestic unveiling, the Concerto was premiered publicly at Berlin’s Schauspielhaus on 3 July. After that public performance, however, it remained unpublished, and its score went missing until as recently as 1983, when it was rediscovered in the Berlin State Library.

The Orchestra perform Mendelssohn's Double Concerto for Violin and Piano

The Concerto offers us a remarkable glimpse of the teenage composer in action, in one of the most ambitious works he wrote as a young man. Indeed, its first movement is the longest concerto movement Mendelssohn ever composed. Listening to its opening theme, you might be forgiven for thinking you were in the middle of a Bach fugue. Mendelssohn was no doubt influenced by the counterpoint he’d been studying with his composition teacher Carl Zelter (we’ll return to him shortly), and the music develops with more than a hint of a Baroque concerto grosso. There’s a far more Schubertian flavour to Mendelssohn’s second main theme, however, and a distinctly Rossinian bounce to the music that ends his opening section. If certain passages in the Concerto show the young man trying his hand at some of the musical styles he admires, there’s a lot of innovation, too – not least in a showy recitative from both soloists that interrupts the movement, with a grand, vocal-style line sung out by the violin against dramatic tremolos in the piano, and also in the written-out duo cadenza for both soloists together.

The lush and lyrical second movement feels very much in the spirit of the piano Songs without Words that Mendelssohn would write a few years later, while the closing movement is an energetic, dance-like rondo that puts both soloists through their paces in some spectacular, technically demanding writing.

We stay with the 14-year-old Mendelssohn for the weekend’s second piece, and we find him in the company of his composition teacher Carl Zelter. Mendelssohn originally wrote what we now call his 12 String Symphonies essentially as composition exercises for Zelter, and in them, he was expected to demonstrate his understanding of those composers the elder musician had selected for close study: JS Bach, Mozart and Haydn, and also CPE and JC Bach. (Beethoven didn’t quite make it onto Zelter’s list, and the young man was left to discover that composer for himself.)

Similarly to the earlier Violin and Piano Concerto, the String Symphonies were intended for performance by just a handful of players, probably in the Mendelssohn family home, and were long thought lost until their scores turned up in 1950 in the State Library of East Germany.

The String Symphony No. 12 is the last of the set (thought it was followed by a single-movement Symphoniesatz, usually called No. 13), and was finished on 17 September 1823. It’s a fascinating piece, one in which the young man is clearly out to demonstrate his understanding of earlier musical styles, but in doing so creates a work that’s fresh, innovative and compelling.

After a strutting, Handel-style introduction full of yearning dissonances, Mendelssohn launches his ambitious first movement with an intense, Bach-style fugue with a slithering, sinking opening chromatic theme, which steadily grows in complexity and intricacy before ushering in another fugue theme altogether. His slower second movement is warm and flowing, though its second half moves into slightly darker material, and Mendelssohn again incorporates the slithering chromatic theme of his opening movement. His finale kicks off almost as if it’s an undiscovered Brandenburg Concerto, before developing into another fugue, more angular and finely wrought, before the slithering chromaticism gets a final look-in just before the Symphony’s conclusion.

SCO musicians recording Mendelssohn's String Symphony

Two years after writing the weekend’s opening two pieces, Mendelssohn was already composing what are undeniably masterpieces – as the weekend’s third work demonstrates. His Octet, the work of the 16-year-old composer, comes from 1825, and remains one of his best-loved and most admired creations. It meant a lot to Mendelssohn, too. Later in life, he remembered it as ‘my favourite of all my compositions’, adding: ‘I had the most beautiful time writing it.’

And in it, we return to the man with whom Mendelssohn had premiered his earlier double concerto. Mendelssohn wrote the Octet as a birthday gift for his friend and violin teacher Eduard Rietz, and clearly intended the work’s sometimes florid, virtuosic first violin part specifically for its anniversary recipient. He completed it on 15 October 1825, presented it to Rietz two days later, and Rietz proceeded to copy out its parts by hand himself in preparation for its first private performance. It had to wait another 11 years before being unveiled before the public, however, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on 30 January 1836.

The Octet is doubly remarkable, in fact, not just because of Mendelssohn’s youth, but also because he achieved such rich, apparently effortless invention in an instrumental grouping – comprising four violins, two violas and two cellos – that had barely any precedents. He was no doubt partly inspired by Spohr’s 1823 Double Quartet, but that earlier work is conceived very much for two individual, sometimes musically separate, string quartets. Mendelssohn, however – perhaps drawing on his own early String Symphonies – views his eight string players as a miniature orchestra, and thereby exploits all manner of textural possibilities within the group.

And while the Octet’s music might seem vivacious, carefree, even spontaneously composed in a burst of creativity, Mendelssohn in fact pored over the piece, putting it through quite a lot of substantial changes and revisions. You don’t achieve this level of apparent spontaneity without a lot of toil and sweat behind the scenes.

The only movement, in fact, that Mendelssohn didn’t substantially revise is the Octet’s third, a gossamer fairy scherzo that prefigures a style he’d go on to make entirely his own, not least in the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream that he wrote just a year later. The composer is said to have been inspired by the Walpurgis Night section of Faust by his friend Goethe, in which Mephistopheles invites his gullible acolyte to a gathering of witches and demons high in the German mountains. It’s even been suggested that Mendelssohn set out to portray in the movement’s music specific elements from Goethe’s sinister literary evocation – crickets, frogs, flies, mosquitos and even bagpipes. Indeed, all of those can be heard in the scherzo if you listen hard enough.

SCO Musicians perform Mendelssohn's Octet

Returning to the beginning of the Octet, however, its lengthy first movement (more than twice as long as any of the work’s later movements) launches with a bounding, propulsive theme in the first violin that it’s almost impossible not to associate with youthful vigour. Its central development section passes through darker moods, but the return of its opening theme is heralded by a remarkable rushing unison passage across all eight instruments, just one example of Mendelssohn’s astonishingly audacious treatment of his ensemble.

He divides his eight players into smaller groups for the thoughtful second movement – for example the four lower instruments separated from the four higher in the movement’s very opening. And once his quicksilver scherzo has disappeared in a puff of smoke, he shows off his mastery of counterpoint in the Octet’s bold, confident finale, which feels like a release of the energy that’s been pent up during the previous two movements. Listen out for what might sound like a direct quotation of the line ‘And He shall reign for ever and ever’ from the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ in Handel’s Messiah, which Mendelssohn manages to integrate fully into his complex contrapuntal texture. It might just be coincidence, of course, but it’s even been suggested that the whole Octet is based around Goethe’s Faust, and that this section somehow marks the struggle of faith between Faust and Mephistopheles for Gretchen’s soul. Whether that’s plausible or not, it does nothing to sap the breathless good humour and wit of this smiling, sunny conclusion.

For the weekend’s final piece – and for what’s almost certainly the composer’s best-loved and most highly regarded achievement – we leave Mendelssohn the teenager behind, only to meet him again as a 35-year-old adult.

In fact, the Violin Concerto was the last major orchestral piece he produced: he would die, aged just 38, in November 1847 following a series of strokes, probably exacerbated by overwork and the recent death of his beloved sister Fanny. Unlike the childhood music he wrote at a rate of knots, the Violin Concerto took him a while – six years, in fact, though Mendelssohn has the excuse of directing Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra and founding the city’s Music Conservatoire during that time. Like the Octet, the Concerto is rooted in friendship, this time between Mendelssohn and violinist Ferdinand David, who first became friends and chamber music collaborators as far back as 1825, when David was 15 and Mendelssohn 16. When Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatoire, he soon enlisted David as its inaugural violin professor, and when he took on the directorship of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, no prizes for guessing who he hurried to appoint as its concertmaster.

Nicola Benedetti is soloist in Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto

The first inklings of a Violin Concerto came in 1838, when Mendelssohn wrote to David: ‘I should like to write a violin concerto for you next winter. One in E minor runs through my head, the beginning of which gives me no peace.’ In the end, Mendelssohn only completed the work on 16 September 1844, and worked closely with his friend on it. One of David’s specific requests was that the Concerto should avoid virtuoso display for its own sake, with the result that, though the piece is hardly without its difficulties, it remains relatively playable, and a favourite for younger violinists (incidentally, the weekend’s soloist, Nicola Benedetti, recorded it as just her second CD release, at the age of 18). David (who else?) premiered the Concerto in Leipzig on 13 March 1845. It was an immediate hit, and has remained popular ever since.

Nonetheless, it’s a quietly innovative piece. Mendelssohn the conductor wasn’t fond of applause between movements of a longer work, so composed links joining the Concerto’s three movements: a solo bassoon that refuses to be quiet once the haunting first movement has ended; then a more elaborate dialogue between the soloist and orchestra to launch the scherzo-like finale. Furthermore, Mendelssohn breaks Classical convention by placing the violinist’s solo cadenza, not towards the end of the first movement, but at the climax of its central development section, an innovation that was picked up and copied by composers including Tchaikovsky and Sibelius.

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