As a young child, Mendelssohn was a prodigy on both piano and violin. Along with his sister Fanny (also a musical prodigy), the young Felix went to Paris to study the work of Mozart and Bach; the two composers had a great and lasting impression on Mendelssohn, and many of his works show his penchant for Classical logic, form, and elegance over the more contemporary trademarks of the Romantic period. Mendelssohn’s gifts were not limited to music, however; he was also a painter and had natural aptitude with languages; at the age of 12, Mendelssohn was introduced to the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to whom he dedicated his B-minor Piano Quintet. He also was influenced by the works of Shakespeare, and wrote the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was only 17.
Mendelssohn composed three violin sonatas over the course of eight years. The one we hear tonight is the final of the three, written in the summer of 1838 when Mendelssohn had a new wife and a baby. During that summer he had time to turn his attention to chamber music. This Violin Sonata in F is an extremely ambitious work, concerto-like for both instruments while remaining true to the form. The result is both coherent and exhilarating. The first movement, marked Allegro vivace, is fraught with drama from the beginning. The piano begins with a statement of dotted-rhythm sequences moving up. Then the violin takes over the melody while the piano ripples. The two climb and fall as they trade melody and accompaniment back and forth.
A vastly more reflective Adagio follows; the piano again starts, this time with quiet chords and single notes sounding out a lovely melody. The movement ends with the violin sustaining a high note while the piano plays much lower in register.
The final Assai vivace is a feather-light race between the two partners; there’s a sense of happy exploration as the movement seems to happen in one large sweep of action.
Mendelssohn did not publish the work in his lifetime. The Sonata in F lay untouched for years after its premiere performances in 1838, until finally Yehudi Menuhin revived the work, publishing it in 1953.