Mendelssohn – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E-minor, Op. 64

by Max Derrickson

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy     (bornHamburg,Germany, 1809; diedLeipzig,Germany, 1847)

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E-minor, Op. 64
1. Allegro molto appasionato
2. Andante
3. Allegretto non troppo – Allegro molto vivace

In 1825 and 1826, Mendelssohn, only 16 years old, wrote two of Westerns Music’s greatest jewels: the String Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, Op 21.  After being stunned and delighted by these masterpieces, all of Europe was expecting a string of masterpieces to follow.  However, although Mendelssohn composed many excellent works over the ensuing years of his life, including his Symphonies No. 2, 3, 4, 5, his St. Paul and Elijah Oratorios, and many chamber works, none seemed to climb the peaks of inspiration that he had achieved with these two early, giant masterpieces.  That is not to say that Mendelssohn was resting on his young laurels in those years that followed.  He became a revivalist of Bach’s great choral works and was a first-rate Bach scholar; he founded and directed the Leipzig Conservatory; he conducted professionally and made some significant reforms in that field; and he concertized at an exhausting pace.  Eventually the music-going audiences of the day came to believe that his early, erstwhile masterpiece-well had gone dry.


The Violin Concerto would prove them wrong, however; it was only Mendelssohn’s hectic life that had kept him from it.  Its first notes were conjured up in 1838, when he told his friend and violinist, Ferdinand David, that he wanted to write him a concerto.
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By Mendelssohn’s day, Concertos had become a garish business of technical flash and musical white-wash – many of them are rightly forgotten today.  Mendelssohn’s Concerto, however, had something much more serious and lasting in mind, as is clear from its opening theme.  That first theme, sweeping, haunting and wonderfully lyrical, had been lurking in Mendelssohn’s mind ever since he wrote David in 1838, and this theme, as he said, “gave [him] no peace” until he gave it voice in the Concerto.  The entire concerto is, indeed, filled with beautiful melodies, concise expression and those hallmark Mendelssohnian charms – all aspects that would make this a masterpiece on their own.  But three unusual compositional techniques add an aspect of wholeness, of seamless flow and drama that make this Concerto stand above most others.
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The link between the intense first movement and the second is a magical moment.  The bassoon holds out a prolonged pitch after the final chords die off from the first movement, suspending time.  And then a change of a half step occurs, followed by a quiet gathering of flutes and strings, dissolving like clouds, with pitches in a new key, and then a new movement emerges.  The Andante that follows is a sweet musing, one of Mendelssohn’s most beautiful songs.  As this second movement ends, another magical bridge follows, this time like a Recitative from a Rossini opera, with statements from the soloist and responses from the orchestra.  All the while the tempo is quickening, and then, unexpectedly, a new movement launches forth.
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Mendelssohn’s Concerto became, almost instantly, a mainstay in the repertoire.  As the famous violinist Joseph Joachim, in 1906, said of it, “The Germans have four violin concertos … [Beethoven, Brahms, Bruch and Mendelssohn’s].  But the dearest one of them all, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.”