Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) grew up in the most privileged and intellectually stimulating circumstances imaginable. His father, Abraham, had made a fortune during the Napoleonic Wars as a banker, financing trade out of the north German port city of Hamburg in spite of the blockade. Abraham used his wealth to the support of the Prussian army, bankrolling medical care for soldiers in the field. After the Prussian victory at Leipzig in 1813, Abraham was rewarded for his largesse with a spot on Berlin's municipal council, so the Mendelssohns, including four-year-old Felix, moved to the Prussian capital.
The family quickly became one of the city's most prominent, with their house (really more a small palace) on Leipzigerstrasse serving as a gathering place for Berlin's leading political and intellectual figures. Felix and his sister Fanny were extraordinarily gifted musicians, even as children. (The writer and philosopher Goethe had heard both Felix and another child prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, play and found Felix more impressive.) Their mother organized musical salons on Sunday mornings, often hiring an orchestra to play her son's latest music.
The D-minor Concerto for Violin, Piano, and Orchestra was first performed privately at one such Sunday event on May 25, 1823; the public premiere took place at Berlin's Schauspielhaus on June 3. The 14-year-old Mendelssohn originally wrote the Concerto for himself and Eduard Rietz, his violin teacher and a frequent participant in the family's Sunday concerts. The composer completed a version of the score for piano, violin, and string orchestra on May 6, 1823, and immediately thereafter he added parts for twelve wind and brass instruments (two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets) and timpani. After those two 1823 performances, the score disappeared; the version for string orchestra was only rediscovered after World War II in the Berlin State Library, which houses the Mendelssohn Archive. Relying on this score and on wind parts discovered in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and first catalogued in 1983, German musicologist Christoph Hellmundt reconstructed the present version for full orchestra in 1999 for the ongoing Leipzig edition of Mendelssohn's complete works.
At about 18 minutes, the opening Allegro has to be one of the longest concerto movements Mendelssohn ever composed. The composer contrasts the agitated, staccato, D-minor opening theme with the more lyrical major-key motive that follows. This juxtaposition forms the basis of the movement, with the piano and then the violin fixated first on the opening theme, then on its lyrical successor, this time introduced and elaborated by the violin over a rippling piano accompaniment. An eloquent "Recitativo" for the violin soloist (Mendelssohn uses the designation to capture the violin's operatic declamation at this point - the instrument sounds almost as if it's singing) occupies the movement's center. The wild virtuosity of the solo parts throughout much of the Allegro, culminating in a massive, written out duo-cadenza toward the movement's close, challenges the notion of the young Mendelssohn as a polite genius who composed nothing but warmed-over Mozart until his Octet (1825). (Another cadenza in Mendelssohn's handwriting was discovered in a German library as recently as 1998 and is included in Hellmundt's edition of the score as an appendix.)
The slow movement, with its muted violins and violas, is the concerto's radiant centerpiece, an elegant, A-major piece in the spirit of Medelssohn's later Songs without Words for solo piano. The piano enters alone at first, later exchanging leading and accompanimental roles with the violin. The two solo instruments play a prominent role throughout the movement.
The pianist and violinist introduce the finale's main theme, which the orchestra then takes up and develops. As in the opening movement, Mendelssohn introduces contrasting, lyrical material, and virtuosity also predominates here. The movement sets the seal on a piece that demonstrates both the skill and the enthusiasm of its 14-year-old creator, who was in the midst of his own training both as composer and instrumentalist. The momentary flashes of Mendelssohn's characteristic genius, which would later appear fully formed in the Octet and A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture (1826), only add to the work's interest.
- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Program Designer/Annotator.