FL 2 3033

Mendelssohn: Early symphonies for string orchestra

Release date August 15, 1995
Album code FL 2 3033
Periods Romantic

Album information

Recognition that one is part of an important tradition played an essential role in the maturing of Felix Mendelssohn’s musical style. On his father’s side, there is Moses Mendelssohn, one of the most important philosophers of the German Enlightment; from his mother’s side, Felix is given contact with Berlin’s cultural, artistic and musical tradition. Such influences — to which should be added the names Schlegel, Nicolai, Lessing, Goethe — will assist in the education of the young composer.

When, in 1819, Mendelssohn begins his theory and composition studies with Zelter, the importance of another tradition is added to his musical consciousness, that of Johann Sebastian Bach. Carl Friederich Zelter (1758-1832) had been a student of Carl Friedrich Christian Fash and, more important, of Johann Philipp Kirnberger, both composers in the court of Frederik the Great and contemporaries of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. (Kirnberger had been a student of Johann Sebastian Bach, and was the author of Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik, “The Art of Pure Composition,” a treatise which attempted to formulate systematically Bach’s teaching method: “Those who wish to become completely familiar with Bach’s teaching method will find it explained in extensio in Kirnberger’s work,” wrote Forkel in his biography of Bach.) Zelter, moreover, had collected, as director of Berlin’s Singakademie, an imposing number of manuscripts and editions of Bach’s works, collection which included such works as the Musical Offering, The Art of Fugue, some of the Passions, concertos, orchestral suites and over a hundred cantatas.

The sources of Mendelssohn’s musical education can be thus traced to Bach. Interestingly, not only was Zelter’s teaching centered essentially on contrapuntal techniques, but the progression in which were taught the different techniques was the same as that chosen by Bach for his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, and by Kirnberger for his pupil Zelter: first, thoroughbass, followed, in order, by four-part chorale writing, counterpoint and, finally, fugue.

The String Symphonies (or Sinfonias) were written during the years 1821-1823, that is to say immediately after his studies with Zelter. This was a very active period for the composer: four Singspiel (Die Soldatenslibschaft, Die beiden Pädagogen, Die wandernden Komödianten, Der Onkel aus Boston oder Die beiden Neffen), various works for violin and piano (the Sonata in f minor, op. 4, among others), the Quartets for piano and strings opp. 1 and 2, the Symphony in C minor, op. 11, etc.

The Sinfonias — at least the first ones — can be seen as attempts to put into practice the precepts given by Zelter. Musically, they are still rooted in the 18th century: they resemble more studies in style and genre than studies of form; Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach can be heard, as can some elements of Haydn; the legacy of Mozart makes a few appearances, and Beethoven’s expansion of form is generally ignored. For example, the chromaticism in the first movement of Sinfonia II is clearly contrapuntal in nature, that is, results from the meeting of independent voices rather than from a desire to use it for its own, purely expressive, sake (as will be the case in later romanticism). As well, if the material used in the development of this movement is indeed derived from the opening material, it is not, strickly speaking, “developped”: the discourse is essentially post-baroque in nature, evolving by means of imitative counterpoint and harmonic sequences. Also both “un-” classical and “un-” romantic is the speed at which the dominant (E) of the dominant (A), or V/V, is reached: 8 bars only after the begining of the development.

There are numerous examples of this kind: the entire first half of the development of Sinfonia VII is an “exercise” in contrapuntal technique — as the second half will be one in harmonic sequences; fugues are also present, in the Allegro molto of Sinfonia VII and in the Allegro vivace of Sinfonia IX (a fugato).

When Mendelssohn, in the later symphonies, starts moving away from an omni-present contrapuntal style, it is in Mozart’s music that he reaches for inspiration. The first movement of Sinfonia IX is an example of the young composer’s “classicism,” in the sense that we find him exploring the problem of the expansion of tonal areas. The key of C major, in the exposition, is prolonged much longer than were opening keys in the earlier symphonies; G major, the dominant, arrives only at the 71th bar of the Allegro, this arrival having been delayed by a subtle play between F sharp and F natural. Other example of a more modern perspective, the incursion into flatten keys (especially b VI) appears more often (development of Sinfonia IX, 1). This technique gives rise to authentically blissful moments in the Andante of Sinfonia VII, perhaps the most romantic (Schubertian!) movement of all found on this recording. We should also note the unique orchestral coloring of the Andante of Sinfonia IX, also undeniably romantic.

© Alex Benjamin

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