30 Nov 2021

MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto

By Jeff Counts

Duration: 26 minutes in three movements (performed without pause).

THE COMPOSER – FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) – Mendelssohn had been the principal conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra for three years when he began work on a concerto for the concertmaster Ferdinand David in 1838. The two men had been friends since 1825 (when David was 15 and Mendelssohn 16) and relished the idea of a collaboration. Mendelssohn thought very highly of David’s development as an artist and praised his rare blend of “real talent” and “right determination.” David was among the first faculty members appointed to Mendelssohn’s brand-new Leipzig Conservatory in 1843.

Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn

THE HISTORY – Though the two friends exchanged many letters of mutual encouragement for the concerto project in 1838, one of which included a line from the composer about hoping to finish the work “next winter,” the idea was quietly shelved and not taken up again in earnest for another six years. When that time finally came, they collaborated closely on the details of the concerto, still quite committed to a teamwork approach. Mendelssohn, for his part, seemed inordinately driven to please David and sent him a long letter of questions that displayed a level of nervousness unusual for such a veteran composer. Here we see Mendelssohn the thoughtful, even fitful, early Romantic. His desire for compositional perfection can be ascribed to his affinity for the clarity of line and form that defined the Classical ethos upon which, during his time, the sun would fully set. But poise does not necessarily belie a lack of passion and the familiarity of a style does not always rule out creativity. Mendelssohn’s need for approval from his soloist speaks to the great seriousness with which he approached his own musicianship and, though his position near the artistic pivot point between the Classical and Romantic eras dropped his works out of favor for a while, his unique voice now defines that moment in history. This importance is clearly evident in the Violin Concerto. Though Mendelssohn chooses a subtler path than Beethoven, his concerto is filled with equally fresh ingenuity. The melodic material alone exudes an expressive purity that sounds as though channeled from beyond rather than composed. Joseph Joachim (a protégé of David), famously said in 1906 that, among the great Germanic concerti, Mendelssohn’s was “the most inward, the heart’s jewel.” The Violin Concerto was among Mendelssohn’s last full orchestra compositions and though lost momentarily in the muscular shuffle of the high Romantic era that followed, it lives on today with a well-earned popularity that is as fitting as it is lasting.

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1845, Florida and Texas became the 27th and 28th United States, British inventor Stephen Perry received a patent for the rubber band, and the Great Famine began in Ireland.

THE CONNECTION – The Mendelssohn Concerto appears often on Utah Symphony programs. The most recent Masterworks performance was in 2016 with Jun Märkl on the podium and Stefan Jackiw as soloist.