A Fleeting, Cheerful Gift with 100,000 Little Notes

Mirrors. © Charles Thibo

I imagine him a young man, bursting of energy and creative ideas, actively building a career as a composer, well-educated, versatile, gifted, successful. Felix Mendelssohn. Felix the lucky one. One of my personal favourites among his works is his Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, op. 40. It exudes the personal traits that I attribute to Felix, associated to the genius of Ludwig van Beethoven and a musical language directly derived from Beethoven.

In August 1835 Felix moves to Leipzig to become the Kapellmeister of the prestigious Gewandhausorchester. He is expected to conduct some 20 concerts per year. During a stay in Frankfurt, he is being introduced to the distinguished Souchay-Jeanrenaud family. He has an immediate crush on the beautiful and timid Cécile, but, as his biographer Brigitte François-Sappey writes, the composer gives himself some time to think it over. He visits the spa in Scheveningen, but the dice is cast. In 1837, during his second season in Leipzig, he marries Cécile. Felix – a busy, happy man, fully confident of a successful future.

Cécile and Felix spend their honeymoon in Switzerland and in the Rhine valley. Mendelssohn’s second piano concerto sees the light during this summer, he presents it at the Birmingham Triennial Musical Festival during a short stint to Great Britain, where he was to conduct his oratorio “Paulus”. Still, the work did not come easy: “It is a misery with the piano and its 100,000 little notes”, he writes in a letter. He stayed at the house of Cécile’s family which underwent a total renovation – with all the dust and noise accompanying such an endeavour.

Piano Concerto No. 2 had three connected movements like Mendelssohn first piano concerto, that I have written about in an earlier post. As R. Larry Todd writes “the outer movements balance the demands of virtuosity and the artistic integrity of the work […] The head motive of Felix’s first theme later reemerges in a canonic elaboration in the development*, a bit of counterpoint*. The concerto was well received in Birmingham, and in October Mendelssohn introduced it to a German audience. He played the solo part himself. In December he had the work published in December by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig.

I would like to conclude this post with a quote from Robert Schumann: “Let us enjoy the fleeting, cheerful gift! It resembles one of those works thrown off by the older masters while recuperating from one of their great exertions. Our younger master will certainly not forget how the older ones would suddenly emerge with something magnificent – Mozart’s Concerto in D minor, Beethoven’s in G!”

I recommend the recently released recording by Ronald Bräutigam and the Kölner Akademie. Bräutigam plays a rebuilt of an 1830 Pleyel piano, which gives the solo parts a special touch. Literally.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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