Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes (Updated 08/05/2006)

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)


[Bullet6] String Quartet No. 6 in F minor Op. 80 (1847)

[Bullet6] String Quartet in A Minor, Op.13 ("Ist es wahr?") (1827)

[Bullet6] Piano Trio in D Minor Op. 49 (1839)


Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

String Quartet No. 6 in F minor Op. 80 (1847)

FelixThis Quartet is arguably the most impassioned piece of music penned by a composer noted for his classic qualities: elegance, clarity, emotional restraint and superb craftsmanship. It was, however, born of tragic circumstances, the sudden death of Mendelssohn’s beloved sister. Fanny (Cecile) Mendelssohn Hensel, three years older than Felix, was also a gifted musician. At the age of thirteen she scored a Handel Oratorio for full orchestra as an exercise. As a birthday present for her father, Abraham, she memorized 24 Bach Preludes. She composed music throughout her short life. Some of her works are included in Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. His Op 8 Songs Nos. 2, 3 and 12, and the Op 9 Songs, Nos. 7, 10, and 12 are Fanny’s compositions, all without attribution. Despite her obvious gifts, she was not encouraged to become a "professional". Father Abraham believed that "music should be an accomplishment, and never a career for women" regardless of his belief that she was a better pianist than he, and ignoring the fact that he often sought her advice in matters musical. ("Fanny you really know what God was thinking when he invented music".) Brother Felix shared his father’s view. It was her husband, the painter Wilhelm Hensel, who encouraged her to publish her work. It happened that while on tour in England, Mendelssohn had occasion to play through some of his songs, the vocalist being none other than the young Queen Victoria. When the Queen expressed particular delight in one particular song, Felix had to admit that it was actually composed by Fanny. However, there was no jealousy between the siblings, only mutual admiration and devotion.

During rehearsal for one of the family’s famous Sunday Musicals on May 17, 1847, Fanny, age 41, suddenly collapsed and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Felix was devastated. When told of her death, he collapsed with a ruptured blood vessel in his head. He remained so distraught, that he was unable to attend his sister’s funeral. At the urging of his wife Cecile, family and friends, he was persuaded to go to Interlaken, Switzerland. However, as he was accompanied by an entourage of no less than twenty people, rest and quiet were not to be had; though it seems that rest and quiet were never sought by what we 20th Century folks would call Felix’s Type A Personality. Conjecture has it that he never did recover from the blow dealt him by the death of his sister. A contemporary account of his stay in Switzerland relates that "he took to walking immoderately so that his wife was frightened by his absences of many hours...he said it was the only thing that would calm his mind". He wrote to his younger sister Rebecca, "I force myself to be industrious in the hope that later on I may feel like working and enjoying it". Mendelssohn, also a talented painter and draftsman, made watercolors and drawings of the Swiss landscape, as well as composing the F minor Quartet, which was completed by September 1847. On the seventh day of that month, he returned to Leipzig, and than traveled to Berlin to tend to details concerning an upcoming performance of his oratorio Elijah. It is reported that while in Berlin he was taken to "the room where his sister was attacked by the fit of which she died. One of his Walpurgisnacht Choruses still remained at the piano open at the page she had been playing. Nothing had been moved since her death, either in this room or the one where she died. They showed him both. He was excessively agitated, his grief burst out afresh, or more even than before. He told the King that it was impossible for him to superintend Elijah, and he returned to Leipzig." In less than two months, he too would be dead, at the age of 38, the result of a paralytic stroke.

The F minor Quartet was published posthumously. The first movement alternates music of rage and lamentation. In the second movement, what would have otherwise been a light and airy "Mendelssohnian Scherzo", is here bitter and sardonic, more Mahler than Mendelssohn. The third movement is a long elegiac adagio with echoes of the anguished wails of the first movement. The Finale returns to the rage and grief of the first movement. Did this, his last completed chamber music work, signal a new plateau in the composer’s work, unfulfilled by his untimely death, or would he have returned to the classical restraint of his previous work?

1996-97 Season, Program III , Sunday February 2, 1997

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Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13 ("Ist es wahr?") (1827)

Felix, somewhat nobleMendelssohn was a child prodigy and a precocious artist. However he differs from prodigies like Mozart and Beethoven in that he did not come from a family of professional musicians. He composed sonatas, songs, cantatas, organ works, and even a symphony before his sixteenth birthday. At seventeen he produced his first masterpiece, the overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Among his many accomplishments as a composer, conductor, performer, scholar, teacher and champion of his contemporaries, (he was also an excellent sketcher and watercolorist), was bringing back from obscurity the music of J.S. Bach and editing and revising Handel's Oratorios based on the principle of faithful adherence to the original, then a novel idea. He was the first to conduct Schumann's symphonies and, along with Schumann and Ferdinand David, founded the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843. Mendelssohn drove himself relentlessly in all his musical activities and died suddenly in 1847 at the age of 38.

Today, as art and literature increasingly take a back seat to popular culture (or worse yet, entertainment as consumable product), how can we begin to comprehend the eighteen year old Mendelssohn? He was a marvel, not only for his musical imagination and craftsmanship, but also for the quality of his understanding and his musical judgment. The A Minor Quartet provides a case in point. It was written in the year of Beethoven's death, 1827. At that time Beethoven's music was out of fashion. Rossini was the hero of the day. Carl Maria Von Weber and Ludwig Spohr, who wielded considerable influence on their fellow composers, viewed Beethoven's late quartets as the ravings of a cranky, deaf, old man, sick in body and spirit.

For his part, the 18 year old Mendelssohn found those quartets to be marvels, spiritually, intellectually and technically, a view not widely held until this century. He made a careful study of them and was able to adapt some of Beethoven's techniques, such as integrated movements, fugal textures, new tonal effects and more adventuresome harmonies. The A Minor Quartet's last movement has a solo for the first violin that harkens to the last movement of Beethoven's Opus 132.

The concept of integrated movements is to be found by regarding the Quartet's subtitle, "Ist de wahr?" (Is it true?) The title comes from a poem by a friend of his, Johann Gustav Droyson, which Mendelssohn set to music and published as Opus 9, #1. The opening three note phrase of the song becomes a motto which in many guises informs the entire quartet. The second movement contains the fugal textures often found in the late Beethoven quartets. The intermezzo presents a beautifully simple melody sung by the violin, with the other instruments providing pizzicato accompaniment. The middle section of this movement contains music that brings to mind the scherzos of the Midsummer Night's Dream and the Octet. The final movement refers back to the opening and the motto, this time letting it continue to reveal the original song.

1992-93 Season, Program I, Saturday September 26, 1992

"He started playing the piano at the age of four and was composing at eight, by which time he had memorized all the Beethoven symphonies and could play them on the piano. He may have even been superior creatively to Mozart as a young man, for Mendelssohn at sixteen had already written the Octet and was to follow it up in the following year with the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. Mozart at the same age had nothing comparable to show."

Harold C. Schonberg1 

Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

Piano Trio in D Minor Op. 49 (1839)

Mendelssohn, like Poulenc, came from an upper middle-class family. And while this meant that Felix never had to "work" for a living, he nevertheless drove himself to an early grave in an attempt to fulfill all of his many assumed musical responsibilities. It is said that he made the profession of music "respectable." He was by all accounts a remarkable person. He possessed considerable talents as both an artist and writer. Languages came easily to him. His administrative and organizing talents were also considerable. He helped promote his contemporaries, among them Schumann, Chopin and Berlioz. It is also to Mendelssohn that we owe the modern approach to performing the works of Bach  and Handel. Mendelssohn was adamant about sticking to the score – well almost, compared, that is, to the liberties then regularly taken. In this respect he ran afoul of most of his contemporaries who believed they could improve the scores of these past masters.

He was also one of the great pianists of his day. Clarity, nuance, lack of mannerism, and again, fidelity to the score marked his playing. His style of playing eventually won out over the empty virtuosity, charlatanism, and showboating of many early 19th Century pianists. He also kept the keyboard works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven alive when they were eclipsed, much to his disgust, by those of Field, Hummel, and Kalkbrenner. In his work The Great Pianists, Harold Schonberg asserts that Mendelssohn was probably "one of the greatest improvisers of musical history".

His major chamber music works with piano include three piano quartets, a piano sextet, and two piano trios. The trios were the last to be composed. The D minor proved to be an immediate success.

In his capacity as a music journalist, Robert Schumann wrote of Mendelssohn’s D minor Piano trio: " It is necessary to say but little of Mendelssohn’s trio since it must be in everyone’s hands. It is the master trio of today as in their day were those of Beethoven in B-Flat and D; as was that of Franz Schubert in E-Flat; indeed a lovely composition which years from hence will still delight grand- and great-grand children…he has raised himself so high that we can indeed say he is the Mozart of the nineteenth century; the most brilliant among musicians; the one who has most clearly recognized the contradictions of the time, and the first to reconcile them. After Mozart came Beethoven; this modern Mozart will be followed by a newer Beethoven. Indeed, he may have already been born. And now, what more shall I say of this trio that has not been said by everyone who has heard it? The happiest of all are those who heard it played by its creator. Though perhaps there may be bolder virtuosos, scarcely another than himself knows how to perform Mendelssohn’s works with such enchanting freshness…. I need hardly mention that this trio is not written for the piano player alone; that the two others also must do their part and may depend upon delight and thanks. So let the new work have its effect everywhere, as it should have, and prove anew to us the artistic power of its creator. This now appears to be in fullest flower."3 

Mendelssohn seems to have gotten it all right in this work. The proportions of the four movements are exquisite. There is not a dry patch in the work. Our attention is held throughout each movement. As Schumann points out the work is not for piano alone. In the first movement, a model of clarity in Sonata form (but who cares) the cello is given the two main themes. The second movement Andante is much like one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, which have unfortunately, become negatively associated with Victorian salon music. A bit sentimental, yes, nonetheless, it is a lovely intermezzo. The third movement is one of Mendelssohn’s elfin scherzos, short but extremely demanding of all the players. The finale is a fiery piece in the minor mode based on a "long-short-short" rhythm.

"There is so much talk about music, and so little is really said. I do not think words are at all adequate for the subject, and if I found they were, I should end by writing no more music."

Felix Mendelssohn

 1 Schonberg, Harold. The Great Pianists A Fireside Book Published by Simon & Schuster. N.Y. 1987,1963

 2 While Mendelssohn is often credited with reintroducing the music of Bach, it ain’t necessarily so. The music of Bach was studied and appreciated by Mozart (who arranged some of the preludes and fugues for string trio) and Beethoven (who was also a big Handel fan) due to Baron von Swieten. And of the Romantic composers, Chopin could play the preludes and fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier from memory. Schumann studied the music of Bach assiduously. Schonberg points out that a perusal of French, English and German magazines from the early 19th century will reveal Bach’s name mentioned often, and with much reverence.

3 Schumann quote included in the notes by D. Nimetz to Vox Box CD3x 3029 The Kalichstein Laredo Robinson trio plays Brahms, Mendelssohn Dvorák

2000-2001 Season, Program III, Sunday April 1, 2001

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All original text on this page Copyright 2002 by Joseph Way