Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto: A Jewel That Changed a Genre

May 14, 2019

by Kelly Dean Hansen, PhD

“Guest blogger Kelly Dean Hansen has chosen one work from each of the six weeks of the 2019 Colorado Music Festival season to spotlight.  He will be exploring these works with the aim of explaining what makes them lasting, immortal parts of the classical repertoire.”

The celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim, speaking in 1906, said: “The Germans have four violin concertos.  The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven’s. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch.  But the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.”

During Week 1 of the Colorado Music Festival’s 2019 season, on the first Sunday chamber orchestra concert June 30, music director Peter Oundjian and violinist James Ehnes will perform a work that somehow transcends its ubiquity and popularity and seems fresh every time it is performed.  Felix Mendelssohn at his best always exudes this quality. In his early years we have examples in the String Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Violin Concerto is the most mature product of the mature composer, completed in 1845, two years before his premature death at age 38, though it was conceived as early as 1838.  As Joachim said, it is probably not the greatest violin concerto ever written, or even the most profound, but it had arguably more influence on the concerto genre than any of the other three works he cited.  Conversely, it could not have had that influence without the example of Beethoven’s concerto, which expanded the model and has surprises like the timpani opening.

But beyond its historical importance, there is something ineffable about its overall effect, about the inevitable buildup over the course of its three movements toward a four-bar climax that is one of the most effective in the literature.  I once raved about these four bars on a social media platform, and it was longtime CMF principal second violinist Mary Ellen Goree who rightly pointed out that they are meaningless in isolation and are only transcendent because of everything that comes before them.

Creating a Collaborative Precedent

Mendelssohn proposed the idea of a concerto to its eventual first interpreter and dedicatee Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, where Mendelssohn was principal conductor.  In July 1838, Mendelssohn wrote to David: “I should like to write a violin concerto for you next winter. One in E minor runs through my head, the beginning of which gives me no peace.”

Over the six-year gestation of the concerto—during which the Third Symphony (the “Scottish”) was composed—Mendelssohn kept up a regular correspondence with David.  The composer was not a violinist and looked to David for advice on technical issues, along with asking for input on the composition itself. After the completion of the score in September 1844, he still asked for advice from David up until the March 1845 premiere.

This is perhaps the first instance of a composer so actively collaborating with the intended performer in the composition of a concerto.  Mozart wrote both his piano and violin concertos for himself, as did Beethoven his piano concertos. There is no evidence that Beethoven asked for much input from Franz Clement, the commissioner of his Violin Concerto.

Because of the collaboration, the concerto retains its composer’s unmistakable voice while also being gratifying for the performer in a way that Beethoven’s concerto is not.  Later, Johannes Brahms was not ashamed to follow Mendelssohn’s example, in this case with Joachim. And while Antonín Dvořák did not follow every suggestion of dedicatee Hanuš Wihan when writing his Cello Concerto, it is hard to imagine it would be the boon for cellists it is without Wihan’s input.  Mendelssohn and David set the precedent.

Innovating the Structure without Disturbing the Basic Form

Mendelssohn retains the standard three-movement concerto structure, along with the typical “sonata-allegro” form for the first movement.  But within the structure are three major innovations, all of which build upon some precedent, but also had an indelible influence on concertos that would come after it.

1. Mendelssohn has the solo instrument start right away with the main theme.  In classical concertos, the orchestra had the first word. It was given the presentation of the principal and secondary themes, and it could be several minutes before the soloist made an entrance.  This resulted in a “double-exposition” form, with an orchestral exposition and solo exposition before the central development section of the sonata-allegro form.

Mendelssohn was not the first to bring in the soloist early.  Beethoven had already done it in the Fourth and Fifth piano concertos, but then after a brief bow before the curtain, the orchestra took over and did its expected presentation.  Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor is exactly contemporary with this work, and while the piano does play from the outset, the orchestra still has the initial presentation of the main theme over decorative figuration from the solo instrument.

Mendelssohn boldly lets the solo violin do the full presentation of the memorable E-minor melody right at the outset.  It is the orchestral strings who have the decorative figuration. The orchestra gets its turn, but only after the full solo statement.  There is thus no need for a “double exposition.” Even the early solo entrance, let alone the thematic presentation, was unprecedented in a violin concerto.

The “double exposition” and the orchestral presentation did not die after Mendelssohn.  The four Brahms concertos, all of which are symphonically conceived, retain it (and only in two of them, the Second Piano Concerto and the Double Concerto, do the soloists make a curtain-opening appearance).  But Mendelssohn’s concerto was the biggest precedent for making it optional.

2. Mendelssohn does not allow for an improvised solo cadenza, but rather makes his own cadenza a prescriptive part of the music.  He also varies its placement. The improvised cadenza was a staple of classical concerto literature. Beethoven retained it in his first four piano concertos, although he left his own cadenzas that are almost invariably used today.  He did not leave any for his Violin Concerto, and there are many that have been written for soloists to choose from. His Fifth Piano Concerto, the so-called “Emperor,” does not allow for an improvised cadenza, and this is probably the earliest example of that.

Mendelssohn went even further, however.  His solo cadenza is a brilliant display of virtuosity, albeit a short one.  But the fact that it is prescribed is not the big surprise. Rather, its placement after the development section, with more than a third of the movement to go, was wholly new and unexpected.  The improvised cadenza had invariably been placed at the climax of the third and final part of the “sonata-allegro” form, the recapitulation, heralded by a distinctive sustained “six-four chord.”  A long trill suggesting an arrival on the keynote would signal to the conductor that the soloist was finished, and the cadenza would be followed by a coda. In Mozart’s case, these codas were brief, and in Beethoven’s they were a bit extended.

Mendelssohn has his cadenza lead into the recapitulation, and this time, the soloist’s figuration leading out of the cadenza becomes the accompaniment to an orchestral presentation of the main theme (thus the soloist compensates the orchestra for the beginning).

3. He connects the three movements of the concerto without a pause.  This was not a big deal between the second and third movements. Beethoven had already famously and explicitly done that in the “Emperor” and the Violin Concerto, and it is strongly implied in the Fourth Piano Concerto.  And Schumann’s Piano Concerto essentially fuses the second and third movements such that the second is basically an introduction to the first. But Mendelssohn connects the first movement to the second, which was unheard of.  Not only that, but he also brings the first movement to a full and powerful conclusion with hammered cadences. When the orchestra cuts off, it leaves a lonely bassoon to start the link, with key change, to the second movement.  In an age where applause between movements was the norm, it is hard to believe that the concerto’s first audience didn’t overwhelm the lonely bassoonist. At any rate, this concerto is the poster child for the convention in modern times of not applauding between movements of a larger work.

The connection between the second and third movements is less surprising.  Mendelssohn provides a transitional passage based on the first movement.

As for the influence of these innovations, that of the composed cadenza was probably the most far-reaching.  After this work, the only major concerto that leaves the cadenza up to the soloist is Brahms’s for violin. Traditionalist that he was, Brahms placed it in the expected spot before the coda.  But even that concerto is so associated with Joachim that his cadenza has virtually become a part of its identity, to the detriment of others that have been composed. Mendelssohn basically killed the improvised cadenza, making the concerto truly its composer’s work, without undue “input” from the performer.  As for the placement of the cadenza, Tchaikovsky obviously looked to Mendelssohn as a model in his own great concerto for violin.

Journey to a Perfect Climax

One of the things that makes the climactic four bars of the finale so fantastic is that they appear nowhere else in the score, but they emerge as an organic inevitability.  Let us trace the journey that leads to them.

Climax from the finale (mm. 869-872)

In the first movement, as discussed, the violin, then the orchestra, present the passionate, unforgettable main theme.  Mendelssohn spoke to David of its “giving him no peace,” and indeed, its character is one of urgency, of forward energy.  An angular transitional theme, also presented initially by the violin, takes on great importance, as it initiates the development section and the coda.  The gentle contrasting second theme in G major is presented initially by flutes and clarinets above the soloist sustaining the violin’s lowest possible note, the open G string.  The first theme in major returns to close off the exposition.

The development section is brief, and its emergence into the cadenza, innovative as it is, seems “right.”  The soloist closes it with arching arpeggios using the “ricochet” bow technique and continues them as the orchestra begins the main theme and the recapitulation.  As expected, the second theme is presented in the home major key (E major). The return of the minor key heralds a transition to the coda, and it resembles the transition into the development section.  The coda itself is marked “Più presto,” and it builds in speed and intensity, largely utilizing the angular transition theme. Mendelssohn instructs that the tempo should steadily and continually increase, and the conclusion really does sound like a conclusion.

But then there is that lonely bassoon.  After the other instruments cut off, it holds the note B, using it to lead to the new key of C major for the lyrical second movement.  It is cast in a typical three-part form. The main sections are in a rocking 6/8 meter and are in the character of the composer’s Songs Without Words for piano solo.  The middle section in A minor is more ominous and passionate and is notable for the tremolo accompaniment the soloist must play simultaneously below the melody.

The transition to the finale is back home in E minor, and is clearly based on the first movement, lending an element of cyclic construction to the concerto.  The finale itself is as joyous, celebratory, and triumphant as the first movement is passionate and anxious. It is introduced by trumpet fanfares and timpani rolls.  The main theme is exhilarating and unbridled. It is also relentless, requiring incredibly dexterous passage work from the soloist. The finale’s other major idea is an energetic “hammering” melody in B major interspersed with more passage work from the main theme.

In the middle of the finale, within the development section, the soloist plays a new and broader melody in G major.  When the main theme returns, this broad melody will be used as an orchestral counterpoint to it. Approaching the end, the flutes and clarinets play the main theme over sustained trills from the soloist, a magical moment.  From there, the movement emerges into its glorious coda. The way the coda leads perfectly into the climactic four bars is difficult to put into words. One must experience it. But the energy builds to its breaking point, and then it happens: over trembling strings, with punctuating timpani rolls, doubled by flutes and oboes, the soloist leaps up to a high E (the keynote of the concerto), and then descends to one of the most satisfying cadences in all of classical music.  What follows that moment is essentially an extended punctuation.

And in that moment, the listener is so consumed with its magnificent inevitability that all the concerto’s major and far-reaching innovations fade into that inevitability.  The moment would not have the same impact without them, but while we are experiencing it, we are not thinking about them at all.

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