The Happy Man
By Gary Barton
Imagine growing up in a household where Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein were regular visitors and Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama often dropped in for tea. Leonard Bernstein conducted your music for the intimate home concerts your parents arranged. Your piano teacher was one whom Aaron Copland regarded highly. In short, you had continuous contact from infancy with world-renowned scholars and musicians. Best of all, even though you were six years old, these brilliant grownups enjoyed talking with you and respected your knowledge, listening carefully to what you had to say. They were also eager to hear and play your music. Plus, your big sister was fun to be with, and you and she performed musically and acted in plays with a group of other bright and happy children that ultimately included your two younger siblings. For a bright child, this would be a dream come true; for Felix Mendelssohn, it describes his childhood.
Over half a century ago, Ewen & Cross' The Encyclopedia of Great Composers and Their Music had this to say of Mendelssohn: "The name was appropriate: "Felix," Latin for "happy man." The frustrations, maladjustments, and conflicts of most other great composers make the life story of Felix Mendelssohn as refreshing as sunshine. He was born of wealth and position. He was encouraged to follow the direction in which his talents lay and given every opportunity to develop those talents. Success came early and without struggle; it remained with him till the end. He had two large visions: one was to restore the neglected music of Johann Sebastian Bach to the world; the other, to found a great conservatory. He was able to realize both of them. The one woman he loved returned his love. If he died at the premature age of thirty-eight, he died at any rate before the serenity of his life could seriously be disturbed."
The Mendelssohn family lived in Berlin in a roomy house with an excellent music room and a gartenhaus on the adjoining grounds that could easily accommodate several hundred people for the family's regular Sunday musical performances. It was there, in the autumn of 1826, that the piece called A Midsummer Night's Dream (in a version for 2 pianos) was first heard. Mendelssohn was 17 years old when he composed this unique work. The brilliance of this piece far exceeds anything Mozart wrote at the same age.
On this subject, Ethan Mordden, in his excellent A Guide to Orchestral Music, the handbook for non-musicians (Oxford University Press, New York, 1980) writes: "So remarkable is this work (the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream) that it equals anything else the composer wrote the rest of his days. And that, in itself, poses a problem for Mendelssohn's admirers, for this most fortunate and engaging life shows little of the upward mobility of the more imposing and, perhaps significantly, less fortunate composers. No Beethovenian struggle against the sports of the gods here, no chaotic emotional deluge such as continually threatened to drown Hector Berlioz, no Wagnerian obsession with the dark passages of human love. Whether he had it easy, as they say, or because he lacked the grasping hunger of temperament, Mendelssohn somehow never rose above and past his early brilliance (though he seldom fell below it either). Even his greatest works amount to a protraction of the youthful gift that at first seemed to announce the next titan."
1828 gave Mendelssohn an opportunity to prove his musicianship when he organized a large-scale performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Berlin Singakademie. The work of this composer had not been heard for many years and this concert helped to spark the 19th century Bach renaissance. Mendelssohn then visited London, where he played Beethoven's Emperor Concerto and a concerto by Weber from memory, which was unusual for the time. Next, he traveled on to Scotland where he was fortunate to meet and spend a few days with the famous author, Sir Walter Scott. While in this country, Mendelssohn undertook a stormy ocean voyage to the Hebrides and visited the island of Staffa (actually not part of the Hebrides) to see the natural wonder known as Fingal's Cave. He wrote the Hebrides Overture in anticipation of seeing this unique grotto. This same visit planted the seeds for his Scottish Symphony, although it took the composer nearly a decade to finish it. Similarly, time spent in Italy spurred Mendelssohn to write a sunny work inspired by the ancient ruins and countryside. However, he dashed off his Italian Symphony in relatively short order.
Berlin was not the ideal place for a Romantic composer whose music was classical in nature, so Mendelssohn spent some time in Düsseldorf in the early 1830's, fulfilling various musical duties and doing some sketching and painting (he was reportedly a very talented artist). Then he read Robert Schumann's Neue Zeitschrift Fur Musik and came to the realization that Leipzig might be the best place to found a musical conservatory, something he dreamed of doing. He found a warm reception in Leipzig as well as his wife-to-be, Cecile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud. They married March 28th, 1837.
In addition to his position in Leipzig (he was conductor of the Gewandhaus orchestra), Mendelssohn also worked in Berlin, dividing his time between the two cities. His dream of founding a conservatory in Leipzig finally came true when this institution opened in 1842. He was director and Robert Schumann and Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the Gewandhaus orchestra, were on the faculty. During this period Mendelssohn continued to concertize, compose, conduct and travel. He also carried on an enormous correspondence and founded several musical festivals.
The music Mendelssohn wrote during this time included many of his well-known works. St Paul premiered in 1836 and Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, based on poems written by his friend, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, first appeared in 1835. In 1844, Mendelssohn introduced new incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. He also worked steadily on his second oratorio, Elijah, perhaps looking back to the Judaism he knew from the time of his early childhood before he was baptized a Christian. He wrote a dozen symphonies for strings alone for house concerts in his early teens, and five symphonies for full orchestra, which are numbered in order of publication, not of composition.
The major works by Mendelssohn are considered the aforementioned symphonies, the Violin Concerto in e minor, the Piano Concerto #1 in G Major, the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Hebrides, the Ruy Blas Overture, the oratorio Elijah, Songs Without Words, Rondo Capriccioso and Variations Serieuses. St Paul and the Octet in E flat can also be included in the list of extraordinary works by this "happy man", Felix, christened Jacob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
The Essential Mendelssohn
Mendelssohn's continued popularity through our time has meant that many recordings have been made of his music. With a budget in mind, here are some suggested purchases.
Works for Orchestra
Nimbus Records (NIM #1765) offers a multi-CD set called Mendelssohn: Works for Orchestra that contains all of the string symphonies and the Sonata #2 for Cello and Piano in D Major, plus the Piano Concerto #1 in g minor and the Piano Concerto #2 in d minor, both with the gifted Joseph Kalichstein as soloist. Also included are the Hebrides Overture, A Midsummer Night's Dream (both the overture and the incidental music), and the Scottish and Italian Symphonies. Jamie Laredo conducts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra except for the string symphonies, which are presented by the English String Orchestra, William Boughton conducting.
You can also get the Midsummer Night's Dream music and the entire play on Nimbus #5041.
Violin Concerto in e minor, Op. 64
Next to the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, Mendelssohn's most beloved work must certainly be his Violin Concerto in e minor, Op. 64. I recommend three recordings, each brilliant in its own way.
First, violinist Henryk Szerying performs with the London Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati conducting (Mercury #434339). This is a re-issue of a recording made in 1964. For flawless and note-for-note perfection, Anne-Sophie Mutter's performance with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon #445515) is just the ticket. However, if you have an SACD playback system, my highest recommendation goes to Sony's recording (#89921) that features a violinist whose musicianship, versatility, and abilities are simply astonishing. Hilary Hahn does the honors with Hugh Wolff conducting the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. Hahn makes other fine players sound "brittle," for lack of a better word. Watch this young lady; she's going to go far and in many musical directions.
Oratorios and Other Stuff
For the future, I would recommend adding Mendelssohn's oratorio Elias (or Elijah) to your collection. EMI #556475 offers it on 2 discs with copious notes in a performance led by Cincinnati May Festival Music Director James Conlon. This composition, which I rank up there with the great oratorios of Handel, Haydn and Bach, has as its performers the Gurzenich Orchestra of Cologne and Stadtischer Musikvereins of Düsseldorf and soloists Andreas Schmidt, Andrea Rost, Cornelia Kallisch and Deon van der Walt.
Also of interest is the collection Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Complete Solo Concertos on Bis Records #966/968 which includes twelve important works. The performers are Isabelle Van Keulen, violin, and Ronald Brautigam, piano, as well as Roland Pointinen and Love Derwinger, all with the Niew Sinfonietta Amsterdam Ensemble, Lev Markiz, conducting.
If you are only interested in the symphonies, try Mendelssohn: The Complete Symphonies and String Symphonies, Naxos Records #8506011. Nicholas Ward and Reinhard Seifried with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and the Northern Chamber Orchestra respectively conduct. Another good buy is Mendelssohn: 5 Symphonies, 7 Overtures on 4 discs (Deutsche Grammophon #471467) featuring Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra.
I recommend pianist Ilse von Alpenheim performing on Philips #438709 for the Songs Without Words (complete).
Mendelssohn wrote many chamber works and solo keyboard compositions that deserve more attention than they receive today. Try exploring the music of this "happy man." Who knows; maybe something good will rub off on you!