Elizabeth Dolin is a distinguished member of the Canadian symphonic and chamber music communities. As associate principal cellist of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for three seasons, she established a [...]
They spoke about it
Like Mozart, Félix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a child prodigy and prolific composer who died of exhaustion before the age of forty. But along with Robert Schumann, he was also a member of the generation who came of age around the time of Beethoven’s death (1827) and who would dominate the German music scene as performers, teachers, and composers until the middle of the century. As a conductor, Mendelssohn’s memorable and historic performance of the St. Matthew Passion sparked the revival of Bach’s music. The year was 1829; Mendelssohn was just twenty.
In 1833, he became Düsseldorf’s music director, and in 1835, he went to Leipzig, where he made the Gewandhaus orchestra legendary. In 1840, Frederick William IV ascended the throne of Prussia. With the new monarch determined to turn Berlin into the cultural centre of Germany, he offered Mendelssohn the kingdom’s highest musical post. Mendelssohn assumed his duties in 1841, but moved back to Leipzig in 1843 when the Berlin bureaucracy began to weigh him down. Upon his return, in addition to re-taking the reins of the Gewandhaus, he co-founded with Schumann a conservatory whose reputation would soon spread throughout Germany. Mendelssohn began to divide his time between conducting, giving chamber music recitals, teaching, and composing.
Tours also became increasingly frequent as his reputation grew. His last, to England in the spring of 1847, was particularly taxing, and news of his sister Fanny’s death upon his return was a severe blow. He fell ill and died on November 4. He was 38 years old. If Mendelssohn’s soul was Romantic, his heart was certainly Classical. Even in its most exuberant moments, his music retains a certain grace and transparency, well illustrated by the complete works for cello and piano on this recording.
Variations concertantes in D major, Op. 17
The earliest piece for this duo is the Variations concertantes in D major, Op. 17. Dedicated to his brother Paul, a fine cellist who nevertheless followed in his father’s footsteps as a banker, the Variations were written in 1829, the same year as the celebrated performance of the St. Matthew Passion. The theme, “Andante con moto,” is in the style of a popular ballad, with two symmetrical eight-bar sequences introduced by the piano and cello in succession. After this Mozartian theme, eight variations of increasing density and vigor take on a confidently wielded Beethovenian influence.
Mendelssohn composed the second work, Assai Tranquillo, in 1835 during a trip from Düsseldorf to Leipzig. He intended it as a memento for Julius Reitz, a cellist and Mendelssohn’s assistant conductor in Düsseldorf. The piece ends on the dominant, making it sound unfinished. Perhaps in sending it to Reitz this way, along with a dedication, he was trying to say that their friendship would continue despite the distance between them. The manuscript was only discovered in the 1960s, among Reitz’s papers. In 1838,
Sonata for Cello and Piano in B-flat major, Op. 45
Mendelssohn completed the first sonata in B-flat major, Op. 45, also dedicating this work to his brother Paul.
The sonata form of the opening “Allegro vivace” plays on an ambiguity between the two themes, with the initial appearance of the second theme sounding more like the conclusion of the first than a distinct second theme. Only later in the piece does it acquire complete autonomy.
The song-form “Andante” (A-B-A’) also toys with convention, this time with modes. While minor keys usually signal sombre music and the major mode is used for joyous themes, the dotted rhythm of the movement’s opening melody in G minor (A) conveys a curious irony. In the G-major middle section (B), the cello plays a sustained elegiac song. The movement ends with the return of the “A” theme as a series of variations (A’) shared between the two instruments, which alternate between the irony of the beginning and an ethos more typical of the minor mode. The two themes of the last movement, “Allegro assai,” take their spirit from the “Andante.” The first theme recalls the cantabile lyricism of the “B” section, while the second vigorously takes up the dotted rhythm of the initial “A” section.
Sonata for Cello and Piano in D major, Op.58
The second sonata in D major, Op.58 dates from 1843, the year in which Mendelssohn, unhappy with life in Berlin, moved back to Leipzig. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music (1980), the sonata “communicates a concentrated impression of the dramatic tensions and contradictions through which he lived during those years.” The “Allegro assai vivace” is built on a theme that blends song-like lyricism with the lively 6/8 rhythm of a gigue. This defiant melody returns as a refrain in what seems both a rondo and a sonata form. The “Allegretto scherzando,” in B minor, opens with a stunningly poetic dialogue between cello and piano, playing pizzicato and staccato pianissimo respectively. In response to this opening is an elegiac cantabile, which the cello plays throughout.
The “Adagio,” in G major, alternates between two baroque forms of which Bach was a master but that Mendelssohn treats here in a thoroughly Romantic fashion: chorale, played by the piano (sempre arpeggiando col Pedale), and recitative, played by the cello (appassionato ed animato).
The sonata form of the last movement, “Molto allegro e vivace,” opposes two highly contrasting ideas: a sort of early Flight of the Bumblebee theme and a playful melody that in the context of his life seems to convey both Mendelssohn’s desire to escape dreary Berlin and his happiness at returning to the cheerfulness of Leipzig.
Song without words, Op. 109
Throughout his career, Mendelssohn held a special fondness for the “song without words,” a much cherished mini-genre at the time. Most were for piano alone, but in 1845, he composed an especially inspired duet for cello and piano (Op. 109). For this particular instrumental combination, it would be Mendelssohn’s swan song.
© 2003, Guy Marchand for Traçantes, the music research, text-writing and translation service of the Société québécoise de recherche en musique. Translation: Peter Christensen.