Mendelssohn discovers the West Coast soul

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Patchwork. © Charles Thibo

The other day I had a crazy thought: What if Felix Mendelssohn would by some strange supernatural phenomenon be catapulted into San Francisco and more precisely into the year 1959? Let’s say it is October, Felix might walk into one of these clubs, like the The Jazz Workshop, and stumble over the Cannonball Adderley Quintet recording “This here”. He would certainly laugh out loud hearing Adderley assuring the audience that the song will not be something like a Bach chorale, but rather has its origin in soul style church music.

Mendelssohn would be irritated by the atmosphere, but then again who isn’t irritated by San Francisco? And that remark about “soul music” would keep whirling around in Felix’ head. Soul music – music for the soul, from the heart… He would understand and smile: “So this is what the future will look like?” He would walk along the harbour side in the evening, lost in thoughts, return eventually to his hotel room and write a letter to his sister: “Allerliebste Fenchel, ich muss Dir Erstaunliches berichten…” And then he would take some music paper and start writing something like the String Quartet No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 44 No. 3. Music for the soul, music from the heart. This is where the crazy thought stops.

In 1838 actually, when Felix wrote that quartet in E flat major, his mind was far away from the New World. He was firmly anchored in Leipzig, conducting the Gewandhausorchester and looking after his wife Cécile and his newly born son Carl. According to his biographer R. Larry Todd he “stepped back prom the ‘progressive’ threshold of the Octet and Opp. 12 and 13 to revalidate a reactionary classical aesthetic”. Todd sees a deliberate choice here, considering his new role as a family man and father on the one hand – daddies don’t do revolutions! – and on the other hand to the conservative if not reactionary mood of Germany. Thus the piece may be more accessible than other quartets.

It begins in an upbeat figure, that is being repeated several times, this motivic construction reminds Todd of Haydn’s quartets. The scherzo features three themes, a remarkable staccato* in C minor being the first, followed by a subdued second with repeated pitches and the third with fugal elements giving it a Baroque flair, the third movement is a slow dialogue between violin and cello while the finale “molto allegro con fuoco” – with fire – is a beautiful, bustling conclusion, reminiscent of Mozart. And Cannonball Adderley would have loved it, being “a shout and a chant at the same time” just like his quintets’s masterwork “This here”.

Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 5 in E flat major has been recorded by the Talich Quartet.

© Charles Thibo

Editor’s note: It is quite interesting to write a text about Mendelssohn and listen to Adderley’s jazz works. Adderley was deemed “the most underrated musician of the century” in the 1950s. Hey, this is so much fun!

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.

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