When I come to think of it, the images I associate with this music go back exactly 29 years. It was in 1988, in Leszno, Poland, and the song was written by Felix Mendelssohn in E major. No. 1 of op. 19b. On a hot summer afternoon I went for a walk, a walk through an idyllic countryside. The houses were old, but tidy. Leszno was called Lissa when it was still part of the German Reich. Perhaps that explains why the courtyards were so neat, the bushes trimmed. I remember a particular garden, lush with green plants, bathed by the sun, flowers everywhere, a bench in front of the house. That garden – Mendelssohn’s “Song without words” made these memories resurface.
Ruled by a repressive regime
At the time, Poland was still ruled by General Wojciech Jaruzelski. Martial law and curfews had been imposed after continuous strikes by the labour union Solidarnosc in several towns. I was part of a sports team that was to compete in a championship in Leszno. We had had trouble getting visas, political insecurity was rampant, and a few days before I went for that walk, we had crossed the Iron Curtain: armed helicopters, soldiers, watchtowers, barbed wire – the further our team drove east, the more depressed we got. And now that! Everything was peaceful and as Romantic as it could get. We had sneaked out of the camp where all the international teams had put up their tents (literally) and enjoyed a moment of freedom and beauty.
Between 1829 and 1845 Felix Mendelssohn wrote 48 lyrical piano pieces, published in eight sets, under the title “Lieder ohne Worte” (Songs without words). And truly, no words are necessary. These compositions are so evocative and carry so much emotion, that words would spoil their effect. I lean back, I listen to those songs and I am back in that dreamlike setting in East Prussia. The German pianist Matthias Kirchnereit has recorded all 48 pieces plus some so far unpublished songs and some that Felix’ sister Fanny had written.
The composer duo Fanny and Felix
Kirschnereit considers himself as an ambassador of Felix Mendelssohn, he confided in an interview for his label Berlin Classics. “This music has a purity and beauty […] even 200 years later it moves us deeply and [the composer] is still underestimated.” He sees the songs as Mendelssohn’s personal diary, reflecting his moods, his thoughts, his fears and joys. As for the songs written by Fanny Mendelssohn, he scarcely knew the pieces before he embarked on the recording project, but once he had opened the score, he fell in love already with the first piece he studied: Song in F sharp minor Op. 6, No. 3.
While some of Fanny Mendelssohn’s songs seem to require a higher degree of virtuosity than those composed by Felix, they quite often are longer and less attached to the traditional form of the Lied. Furthermore, according to Kirschnereit, she explores harmonic regions that Felix Mendelssohn has not ventured into. Interesting pieces, delightful music. Fanny Mendelssohn considered herself an amateur, but the pieces have nothing amateurish. Her judgment probably reflects more social conventions of the 19th century than an honest appreciation of her own talent.
© Charles Thibo