Nostalgia speaks out of the first few bars played by the violin. Nostalgia for what? Well, there is no time to reflect it, because life cuts in, bam, and carries the yearning away – physicians would say reality sublimes the memory of the past, elevates it to a higher rank, makes it look better than it actually was, and what else would you expect from a Romantic composer? Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy composed in 1844 his Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, and when performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under Kurt Masur it carries me away. And each time I listen to it, it sounds better. No need for a sublimation here!
The burden of celebrity
1844 – the year, when the decline began? May be. In 1844, Mendelssohn was the most celebrated musician in Europe. It was a heavy burden to carry. Being popular meant attending receptions and performing a lot, it also meant a stream of ideas (not necessarily his!) for new compositions. And of course, he had set the bar very high when it came to the raffinesse of his compositions. Failure was not an option. He had been granted release from serving the Prussian court, but remained on call for special commissions. A friend, the bass baritone Eduard Devrient, notes depressive moments, a certain tenseness. Mendelssohn’s youthful freshness is gone, he regularly feels overwhelmed by the many decisions he has to make.
And then there was the rivalry between Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. Once they were intimate friends, but Schumann took it badly that Mendelssohn never thought of him to fill the spot of assistant conductor in Leipzig. While Schumann wrote essay after essay on his and other people’s music and made himself a name not only as a composer, but also as a publisher, Mendelssohn abhorred this type of publicity.
A challenging masterwork
Mendelssohn started out with the violin concerto as early as 1838, but he got stuck after having penned the elegiac beginning. In 1838, he was still brooding over the first solo. Then he stopped working on it altogether. Sometime during the summer of 1844, after a stay in London with a busy concert schedule, he got back to the draft and by September the score was finished. What spurred his creativity? We don’t know.
The composer discussed the piece intensively with the violinist Ferdinand David, the Konzertmeister of the Gewandhausorchester in Leipzig, and made a substantial number of corrections. David, to whom Mendelssohn dedicated the concerto, encouraged him do be more daring, to come up with a few more challenges for the solo violinist. The piece saw its premiere on March 13, 1845 in Leipzig. The biographer R. Larry Todd says: “Beloved by generations of violinists, Op. 64 achieved early on an honored place in the canon of European masterworks.” Another biographer, Brigitte François-Sappey, calls the concerto the apotheosis of Mendelssohn’s concerts.
I would be surprised if the Mendelssohn’s violin concerto would not reflect a little his mood of the summer of 1844. The nostalgic melody of the violin in the first movement reminds me of a feeling I get every year in August. The garden is lush with green plants and yet, most flowers are already gone. It is warm, but somehow fall is already palpable. The year is nearer to its end than to its beginning… and tomorrow it might start to snow!
© Charles Thibo