Concerto in E Minor

For Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64, Felix Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto stemmed from a deep friendship and collaboration with the esteemed violinist Ferdinand David. It was the first “in a distinguished series of violin concertos written by pianist-composers with the assistance of eminent violinsts.” In this case, the composer and violinist knew each other well, initially meeting at age fifteen (while David was concertizing throughout Germany), and the two kept up a close relationship throughout their lives.

In 1835, shortly after his appointment as Music Director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Mendelssohn secured the concertmaster’s post for David. Three years later, in July 1938, Mendelssohn wrote to him saying “It is nice of you to press me for a violin concerto. I have the liveliest desire to write one for you and, if I have a few propitious days, I will bring you something…. I would like to compose a violin concerto for next winter. One in E minor keeps running through my head and the opening gives me no peace.”

By 1939, Mendelssohn was frustrated and reported; “this task is not an easy one. You ask that it should be brilliant, and how can anyone like me do this? The whole of the first solo is to be for the E string.” With David’s help, the concerto was eventually completed in 1844. David was responsible both for the cadenza and for giving frequent advice regarding technical matters through the compositional process. Sadly, Mendelssohn was too ill to attend the successful premiere on March 13, 1845 (he would be dead in a year and a half) and Opus 64 was conducted by Niels W. Gade with David as the soloist.

From the beginning of the collaboration, David and Mendelssohn had agreed that this concerto should not be a vehicle for empty showmanship. With this guideline, the outcome was a serious, exquisite, elegant essay in the romantic concerto genre, ultimately ranking among the finest violin concerti written in the nineteenth century. Louis Biancolli assessed;  “In classical poise, melodic suavity and refined romantic feeling, it is an epitome of Mendelssohn’s style. Finesse, cultivated taste, and an unerring sense of the appropriate (are) among its chief attributes.” Perhaps David anticipated this when he said to the composer while the work was gestating“ This is going to be something great! There is plenty of music for violin and orchestra, but there has only been one big, truly great concerto (Beethoven) and now there will be two!” “I am not competing with Beethoven,” Mendelssohn replied.

The Mendelssohn concerto, completed seven years after its concept was first mentioned, bore no resemblance to the Beethoven work. Its  three movements are played without pause. This concerto discards the usual orchestral introductory exposition, beginning instead with orchestral “accompaniment” style, thereby creating a sense of expectation. The violin soloist obliges quickly with a soaring, restless melody, intensifying as it rises. Completing its statement, the soloist moves to a lower register, and remains in the background, as the second theme murmurs from flutes and clarinets. Mendelssohn’s development provides a structural surprise. In this section, the composer moves a written cadenza from its traditional place at the end of the first movement to a new location at the end of the development. The recapitulation enters from the orchestra with the soloist continuing an arpeggiated figure derived from the cadenza. The soloist is clearly collaborating at this point with the orchestra rather than seizing the stage, revealing one of the concerto’s features of interlocking partnership between the two forces. A solo bassoon, holding one note from a cadential chord bridges this movement into the second.

The middle section, an Andante in C major, offers a tender theme sung by the soloist as its main subject. A middle section spins a minor tune over bustling 32nd notes providing significant contrast to the opening calm. The third section recalls the opening theme, refreshed by new accompaniment. Fourteen bars of transitional material bridge to the concluding section.

A tiny introduction and brass fanfare opens the brilliant finale. The soloist answers with lightly scampering arpeggios. A bright main theme from the soloist dances over fairy-like accompaniment from the orchestra. Echoes of Midsummer Night’s Dream are everywhere. Changing this delicate mood, the orchestra asserts a strong second theme, which steadily loses its initial weight, gains flexibility, and finally runs off in a playful mood. The soloist provides a lyrical theme in the development section leading to continued collaboration with the orchestra until a dazzling conclusion.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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