Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn
The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.-- Joseph Joachim
Yes a new episode of Thursday Classical Music... In which we continue the violin concerto theme of last week. Last week we listened to a kick-ass performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto by a somewhat eccentric interpreter, Ivry Gitlis. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I asked if we should do more Gitlis. I heard back YES, and got requests, specifically, for Felix Mendelssohn's concerto, which Ivry Gitlis recorded at the same time as the Tchaikovsky concerto.
Everybody is familiar with at least a little bit of Mendelssohn. Like, "Hark, the Herald Angel Sings." Bugs Bunny couldn't start the day without dancing and twirling to Mendelssohn's Spring Song. You also probably heard some Mendelssohn when you were married. Generally, the march down the aisle is done to Wagner's staid wedding march from Lohengrin. The more boisterous music after the "I Now Pronounce You" is Mendelssohn. (Or you can think of The Newlyweds Game show opening theme, if you prefer.)
The concerto we're going to hear today is part of the standard repertoire, a necessary part of the symphony orchestra lifecycle, a work frequently used in violin competitions, a kind of measuring stick for aspiring violinists.
Here's an interesting excerpt clip of violinist Maxim Vengerov leading a masterclass in how to perform the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, coaching a young woman who looks quite terrified and intimidated.
It's interesting to hear, above, how much even a small part of the piece changes as it passes from the hands of the student to the master. At the end, he says, of the fragment they're working on, "It's like a conversation, like a search."
So this is very human music, and it does have that conversational "a voice speaking to you" feeling.
When I took Intro to Music Appreciation 101 as a pup some thirty-five years ago, Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto was the piece we listened to and analyzed as our example of the concerto genre. They broke it down, Sonata-Allegro form and all that, as I do in all these diaries, so this is familiar turf for me. However, I've had a few years, obviously, to absorb and get a deeper feeling for the music. Hopefully, I can outperform my music teacher and point out things he glossed over!
Mendelssohn has always reminded me of Mozart, even though he fits into the middle or early part of the Romantic Period. Midsummer Night's Dream, for instance, was composed in 1824 -- two years after Beethoven's Ninth was premiered. Mendelssohn was able to match Mozart's ebullience. For example, the final movement today has that feeling of jumping out of your skin with [rational] ecstasy. I think I need to emphasize that word, rational, though. Mendelssohn's music is not the bipolar going-off-the-rails. It's always well-structured and grounded, as Mozart was, and the joy is built atop that.
The first movement, in particular, reminds me of the first movement of Mozart's Symphony #40 in G minor (which is another piece we had to listen to in the same class).
As a reminder, here's the first movement of Mozart's #40, conducted by my FAVORITE Mozart conductor, George Szell, back in 1970, from a live concert in Tokyo.
Notice how it begins with a short repeating minor key intro that basically just sets up the backdrop upon which the real theme will enter. Like the Mendelssohn. There's the hard minor key main theme, with worrisome chromatic notes adorning it. [Chromatic means, black and white notes -- notes between the notes of the normal Do-Re-Mi scale.] Like the main theme of the Mendelssohn. They feel similar, although the Mozart offers less hope.
Here's my handy-dandy blue graphic guide to Sonata-Allegro form, designed to save me some typing:
So... Let's hit the music!
Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, Opus 64 (complete), Ivry Gitlis violin, Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Swarofsky. Recorded 1954 on Vox.
First movement: Allegro molto appassionato (Fast, very passionate)
The first movement is classic Sonata-Allegro form, so here we go again...
Introduction (0:11 to 0:13)
It's just a bar or so of music, music reminiscent of Mozart, a thrumming backdrop for the coming main theme. But notice it has the main rhythmic motif of the movement right in that two little second, a sound like a beating heart. da-DUM.... da-DUM...
Exposition First Theme (0:13)
The main theme begins, played by the violin with the beating heart accompaniment in the background. It's a long winding melody, a very personal lament.
What strikes me about this Gitlis recording (and it's true of the others he has on Youtube) is how hard he attacks this theme. Every other violinist makes this sound wistful, the notes running together like lalaaaala lalaaaala. He deliberately bucks the trend and puts a little more bite into it. His whole performance is going to be more aggressive, more rock and roll, more stock car derby. If you like your Mendelssohn the traditional way, I say, oh well, whatever. I've heard it the TYPICAL way enough times for one life.
At 0:40, the lyrical part of the theme gives way to pyrotechnics from the soloist, setting up a strong cadence that leads to, at 1:03, the violinist drops out and the full orchestra taking up the main theme, giving it a new, extra level of angry growl.
At 1:31, the main theme over, the orchestra and violin give us a VERY LONG bridge passage, built out of parts of the main first theme. This bridge passage is one of the coolest parts of the movement. Bridge passages are meant to change the key, change the mood, segue us into the second theme. Oftentimes they are just filler material. But notice here how it LABORS back and forth between the mean E minor and the more optimistic G major. At 2:32, it finally, with a delicious sense of AHHHHHHHHH... achieves its goal, finds peace, and settles down. Now that we've arrived at our destination of G Major...
Exposition Second Theme (2:40)
The woodwinds, with great gentleness, introduce the second theme. The violin comes in, next, and begins to unwind this full, long, and very romantic melody, one with long graceful leaps. Wow. Listen to how it just trails off on that sustained note at 3:32, disappearing into the clouds... And then reappearing, very sheepishly, at the end.
This second theme will return, in a different form, in the finale.
Exposition Codetta (3:40)
The first theme is back, but it's so HAPPY now, in this very different atmosphere of G major land. It's buoyance tells us that we're near the end of the exposition. It bubbles over with joy. At about 4:20, it begins working its way towards an ecstatic climax.
... BUT... Oh no!
As it reaches for that climax, at 4:27 it runs headfirst into a concrete wall (notice how similar it is to last week's concerto, in this respect -- very similar forms). A shrill, hair-raising chord from the full orchestra seems to say NO! The violin tries again. Again, NO! And again...
And thus we know we're in the development section, the part of the Sonata-Allegro movement where the previous themes, introduced in the exposition like characters in a play, are made to battle it out.
At 4:46, the violin begins a journey, using the back half of the first theme, traveling through a series of keys. (What do I mean by "traveling through a series of keys? Well, just listen to that part. That's what I mean.)
At 5:18, the optimistic version of the main theme (from the codetta), played by the orchestra, tries to assert itself. Coming out of this, the violin takes charge, and the atmosphere cools... chills... chills.
And the orchestra drops out completely at 6:11, leaving the soloist alone, for a very long cadenza. [A long showy solo for Ivry Gitlis to demonstrate why he gets paid the big bucks.]
At 7:24, as the violin trails off into a series of skittering notes, we find ourselves back in the home key (E minor), ready for
The Recapitulation (First Theme Again) 7:24
Above the skittering violin, the orchestra returns with the sane and familiar tones of the first theme. Mendelssohn abbreviates it this time, because we've heard it before. The transition, at 7:41, to the second theme is shorter and simplified as well.
Recapitulation (Second Theme Again) (8:11)
The flutes bring us back to the second theme, still gentle and hopeful and full of love, but now in E major instead of G major. It momentarily "disappears into the clouds," like before, but when it returns...
When we were at this point before, in the exposition, he gave us a hopeful major key version of the first theme. But there's clearly some new drama afoot, as we approach the end. Returning to the dark music of E minor, the music becomes darker, intense, more passionate. At 10:03, it runs into frustration, (The Wall, again).
In dark, angry, frustration, the first theme huffs and puffs and stomps off the stage.
End of first movement. Not a happy ending!
Second Movement, Andante (walking speed) 11:06
But... there is one single note sustained (the bassoon), as the movement ends. Mendelssohn has designed this concerto so all three movements are conjoined and run together. In this case by this one note.
As the first movement was dark and emotionally turbulent, this one, for contrast, will be peaceful and meditative.
There is a beautiful sense of expectation and awe as the music sorts itself out, establishing the new key, the new tone, as it prepares for the movement.
At 11:37, the violin returns, introducing the main theme of the movement, a long, winding song-like melody. It reminded me from the very first time I heard it of the "I Don't Know How to Love Him" song from Andrew Lloyd Weber's Jesus Christ Superstar. (Sarah Brightman sings it here.) I wonder if that similarity is purely coincidental.
AHA! The Internet is so cool. Wikipedia is right on this:
Accusations of plagiarismWell, fine. I can enjoy both Mendelssohn AND Andrew Lloyd Weber without taking sides in a pissing contest. They're both great! IF he did steal, at least he stole from the best! And he put it to good use!
Lloyd Webber has been accused of plagiarism in his works. The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen commented that: "There are two sorts of stealing (in music) - taking something and doing nothing with it, or going to work on what you've stolen. The first is plagiarism. Andrew Lloyd Webber has yet to think up a single note; in fact, the poor guy's never invented one note by himself. That's rather poor". 
However, Lloyd Webber's biographer, John Snelson, counters such accusations. He acknowledges, for example, the strong similarity between the opening melody of the slow movement of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and the Jesus Christ Superstar song "I Don't Know How to Love Him", but opines that Webber:
...brings a new dramatic tension to Mendelssohn's original melody through the confused emotions of Mary Magdalene. The opening theme may be Mendelssohn, but the rhythmic and harmonic treatment along with new lines of highly effective melodic development are Lloyd Webber's. The song works in its own right as its many performers and audiences can witness."
So where were we? 11:37. The violin begins spilling out this long, winding, intimate and peaceful song reminiscent of certain hit musical songs.
As it winds its way to the end, at 14:25, the middle B section begins, more turbulent. Surely we can hear that this is based on the first theme of the first movement, a sort of hybrid cross-breed.
15:56, we're back to the A section. But notice how it has changed from the first time! Having learned a lesson along the way, in proper narrative style, as any creative writing student could tell you.
At 17:42, it begins its peaceful exit. But this leads immediately into:
Third Movement Allegro Molto Vivace (Fast, very lively) (18:02)
The movement has a short, introduction as if it's making up its mind. This concerto really could go two different ways at this point. Will it be tragic, and build on the first theme of the movement, or will it have a happy ending? The music here, based on a fragment from the first theme, displays some dithering about that. Which will it be?
18:53. It decides! Joy! Whoopee!
The form here is sometimes called Sonata-Rondo form. Sonata form we know and love but also despise. Rondo is more like ABACADA. How shall I break this down? I'm going to go with Rondo form because it's easier to follow that way.
First theme! (A section) (18:53)
And off it goes! Skipping, tripping, bubbling with life! I used the word ebullient, before. It belongs here. This is the kind of music Mendelssohn does absolutely best. It's too fast to be danced to, but you can still imagine some supernatural nymph-like life forms trying to and doing it with perfect grace. And it will become more lively as the movement goes along.
Now notice! It's not very obvious at first, but if you listen to it for a while, and once you get Andrew Lloyd Weber out of your head, you might notice that this bubbly theme is reminiscent of something. Hmmm... I told you earlier. It's derived from the second theme. Skip back to 2:40 and listen to that again and come back. This is just a highly elaborated version of that theme, but what a difference it makes!
Fanfare (B section) (19:57)
A more angular, less tripping theme, a heroic fanfare, alternates here. At 20:39, he begins to develop upon that fanfare theme.
First theme again (21:03)
The first theme returns, with more energy, as new sub-themes begin to EMERGE out of it, as if it's spinning off mini-tornados. (At this point, I really am pointing out stuff my Intro to Music App teacher would have glossed over.)
At 21:12, the violin spins off in its own direction with a new, less manic theme, one that EMERGES NATURALLY from the other, one that flows slowly and gracefully, with the first theme. It basically is the first theme, but stripped of its ornamentation and calmed down.
At 21:27, our new, subversive little melody gains more life, moves to the deeper strings as the violin bounces and bubbles. At 21:48, it gets even more fleshing out.
Fanfare Again! (22:10)
Our B section returns. Like the first time at first, but then it gains energy as it heads towards
We rush towards the finish line, picking up speed... And finally...
This was a bit too sloppy for a college presentation, I'm sure, but I hope I managed to point out a few things you might not have noticed before -- and maybe my old teacher never even noticed.
Next Week: I'm open to suggestions, again, for what we should do next week, but I think I like this violin concerto streak.
So I'll ask you guys. I would like it if we could do any of these violin concertos: Sibelius, Brahms, Bartok, Szymanowski, Prokofiev. Speak up in the comments if you have a preference, because I won't cover all of them.