'The most attractive programming of the Mendelssohn duets yet devised'. So said Fanfare of Sophie Daneman's entrancing first disc of Mendelssohn songs and duets recorded with Nathan Berg (CDA66906). That disc was so well received when it was issued in spring 1998 that we have now produced a second in which she is partnered by the outstanding winner of the Wigmore Hall Song Competition, baritone Stephan Loges, accompanied as before by the American Eugene Asti.
Like the first disc there are many rare and previously unrecorded items here.
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Some 106 lieder and 13 vocal duets by Mendelssohn have so far been authenticated. Yet even the seemingly insatiable demand for the musically obscure and neglected that characterizes the millennial age has done little to raise our awareness of these impeccably crafted microcosms. Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf (even Liszt by musical association) continue to form the backbone of the Austro-German Romantic lieder tradition, while Mendelssohn has become increasingly sidelined.
The reason most often cited for this unwarranted neglect is Mendelssohn’s comparatively narrow emotional range. There are no song cycles in the manner of Schubert’s Winterreise or Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, nor song collections based on the work of a single poet. No one opus (Opp 84, 86, 99 and 112 were collected together posthumously) was conceived as a creative entity, but was invariably drawn from ongoing or existing material—Op 47, published in 1839, for example, contains two settings dating from the early 1830s. The early Opp 8 and 9 sets even contain songs composed by Felix’s beloved sister, Fanny.
Whereas the aforementioned composers all fearlessly probed the dark side of the human psyche, for the peaceable, broadly contented Mendelssohn such concerns simply lay outside his experience and therefore, by extension, his expressive armoury. Mendelssohn’s songs were above all intended to be sung and enjoyed around the piano at home rather than being subjected to the public scrutiny of the modern concert hall. It is hardly Mendelssohn’s fault that commentators generally share an irrational tendency to upgrade the value of music in which laughter emerges only through tears rather than the other way round.
Felix Mendelssohn was born into a prosperous middle class family. His grandfather was the well-known philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and his father, Abraham, a successful banker. The household played host to many distinguished guests, including the poet Goethe whom the young boy befriended. Evenings would often be spent performing plays in which members of the family might take part, or the giving of musical soirées during which Mendelssohn would both play and sing. It was almost inevitable, therefore, that the sensitive, home-loving young genius would go on to compose songs that possess an unmistakably living-room ambience (his solo piano ‘songs without words’ inhabit the same world).
Mendelssohn’s general musical education took place under the strict guidance and supervision of Carl Friedrich Zelter, who insisted on a daily diet of Handel, Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Hummel (Mendelssohn was left to discover Beethoven for himself). Within no time at all the wunderkind was already composing freely in an idiom that effortlessly synthesized late-Baroque and Classical semantics with the earliest flowerings of something totally new, original—and unmistakably Romantic.
By the age of sixteen, Mendelssohn was widely recognized as a virtuoso pianist and violinist as well as an exceptional athlete (a particularly strong swimmer), a highly gifted poet, multi-linguist and watercolourist, and an inspired philosopher more than capable of holding his own with learned Berlin University professors. Yet despite his prodigious gifts and all the attention lavished upon him, Mendelssohn was remarkably well balanced, remaining very close to his friends and family. Indeed, the closeness of his relationship with his gifted sister, Fanny, was such that her premature death in 1847 almost certainly triggered off Felix’s own demise just a few months later.
Mendelssohn seemingly excelled at anything that could hold his attention for long enough, although it was music that above all activated his creative imagination. By now he already had a burgeoning portfolio of polished near-masterpieces, including concertos for piano and violin, twelve string symphonies, his first orchestral symphony (No 1 in C minor), three piano quartets, much solo piano music (including the popular Rondo capriccioso), choral works, four operas and several songs.
Although Mendelssohn’s earliest song-settings are somewhat uneven in quality, Frühlingslied (1824, published in 1827), the sixth of the Op 8 set, is a delight. Mendelssohn’s lifelong predilection for swaying compound 6/8 rhythms here captures the celebratory mood to perfection, the high spirits being subtly contained within a predominantly piano dynamic and pianissimo postlude. The through-composed technique allows the fledgling composer scope for some twittering piano semiquavers in the second stanza. In stark contrast, the minor-key Der Verlassene is a chillingly bleak musical landscape of a kind virtually unique to Mendelssohn’s output. Remarkably, he was only twelve years old at the time of composition.
While still in his mid-teens, Mendelssohn produced the two most astonishing works of creative prodigy in the history of Western music: the 1825 String Octet and (a year later) the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here was a mere boy composing with an originality and mastery that put most of his contemporaries in the shade (it seems barely conceivable that just a couple of hundred miles away, Beethoven was concurrently working on his last string quartets). Another Op 8 setting, the predominately strophic Erntelied (composed and published 1827) provides a fascinating illustration of Mendelssohn’s ability to rein in his phenomenal talent. There is (appropriately enough) no sign of his recent instrumental quicksilver flights of fancy in this quietly subdued response to an archaic text. Far more typical of the period is the light-as-air, bustlingly Weberesque Hölty setting, Sicheln schallen.
Most budding composers might have understandably devoted themselves exclusively to music at this point, yet Mendelssohn was keen to develop his considerable talents in other areas. Having recently translated Terence’s Latin comedy Andria, he was awarded a place at the University of Berlin, where he studied aesthetics under the guidance of the great German philosopher, Hegel. Meanwhile, he had also been working on the score of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, with the intention of giving the work its first ‘modern’ performance. On 11 March 1829 he realized his ambition and at a stroke established the then-neglected Johann Sebastian as one of the great masters, as well as inspiring a new historical awareness for great music of the past in general. He had only recently celebrated his twentieth birthday. The contemporaneous, march-style romance Wartend (1829, published 1830) opens with an imposing piano call-to-arms, yet otherwise retains its composure except for the urgent plea ‘Komme du bald!’ (‘Come soon!’). The unexpected tierce de picardie ending poignantly suggests that the (anonymous) poet’s call has finally been answered.
This memorable year 1829 continued with Mendelssohn’s first visit to Britain, the country that was to become such a vital comfort to him in later life. He quickly became the darling of British society, not only because of his transcendental musical ability but also in response to his extraordinarily fine manners and cultured background, which ironically made him appear the epitome of the English gentleman. He visited Scotland where, in the ruined chapel of Mary Stuart, he composed the introduction to what would become his ‘Scottish’ Symphony some twelve years later. While on a visit to the Hebrides Islands, he also noted down the opening theme of his Fingal’s Cave Overture.
The years 1830 to 1834 were Mendelssohn’s principal years of travelling as a celebrated composer and virtuoso. He initially set off (via Austria and a final visit to his mentor, Goethe) for a tour of Italy, before moving northwards to Switzerland and finally France. The present recital features two songs that can be accurately assigned to this period, both marked ‘Andante con moto’, yet of markedly different character: the mildly Schubertian Seemanns Scheidelied (composed and published 1831) and a strikingly sensitive Goethe setting, Die Liebende schreibt (also 1831, but not published until 1850 as the third of the Op 86 set), whose enraptured lyricism, as Philip Radcliffe has rightly pointed out (Mendelssohn, OUP/Dent 1990), makes even Brahms’s realization of the same text appear slightly four-square in comparison.
Two other songs, both published posthumously in 1850 as part of Op 86, are thought to date from much the same time. Mendelssohn’s fleetingly dramatic setting of Heine’s poem Allnächtlich im Traume is placed at something of a disadvantage by Schumann’s slightly later, time-suspending reverie (the antepenultimate section of Dichterliebe, 1840). Es lauschte das Laub so dunkelgrün (some authorities place this as early as 1826) is more relaxed in mood, a close cousin to Mendelssohn’s inimitable ‘songs without words’ style. The change to the tonic minor for the third stanza is most deftly handled.
However, despite all the public adulation, Mendelssohn was not at his happiest during this period. The continual dislocation from loved ones and domestic cosiness was ill suited to a man of his sensibilities. When news of Goethe’s death reached him in the spring of 1832, he made straight for England where he felt most at home. The contented rhythmic swaying, bubbly rising scalic figures and gently rippling accompaniment that distinguishes Der Blumenstrauss (1832, published 1839) would appear to indicate that all was now well in the Mendelssohn household.
A further shock to Mendelssohn’s delicate emotional equilibrium lay just around the corner, however, in the form of an ill-advised musical directorship in Düsseldorf. This eventually left him so distraught, due to the shabby state of the administration (not to say the players), that despite his having instigated an important revival of Handel’s works there, his composition rate dropped alarmingly. Things finally came to a head when in a fit of pique he ripped the score of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture in half during a rehearsal and stormed out.
Two songs from the Op 19a set of six belong to this period, both composed and published in 1833: the first two stanzas of Winterlied (translated from the Swedish) appear to be little more than another of Mendelssohn’s deftly written minor-key excursions in a rocking 6/8 time, until the final verse cadences briefly in the relative major before turning inwards with a barely-restrained desolateness. Neue Liebe anticipates the fairytale world of the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1843), yet there is a goblinesque grotesquerie about this indelible miniature that betrays Mendelssohn’s disturbed state of mind at the time.
Just as things seemed at their lowest ebb, Mendelssohn was offered the Directorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra: he was just twenty-six years of age. The appointment turned out to be an inspired one as during the ten years he was based there, Mendelssohn revolutionized music-making in Germany’s principal cultural city. The Gewandhaus Orchestra was transformed from a relatively undistinguished collection of individuals into a truly virtuoso corporate body on vastly increased salaries. The orchestra’s repertoire increased tenfold, not only embracing Mendelssohn’s own music but the choral works of Bach and Handel, Beethoven’s symphonies (including the Ninth), and Mozart’s piano concertos, with Mendelssohn directing from the keyboard.
In addition, Mendelssohn gave the world premiere of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony, which Schumann had recently unearthed in Vienna, and invited distinguished soloists from all over Europe to come and perform with his orchestra. Modern concepts of orchestral management and concert structure can be said to derive from Mendelssohn’s hugely influential period at Leipzig. It is hardly a coincidence that two of the composer’s most radiantly contented settings date from his early spell at the helm of the Gewandhaus: the quintessential Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (1835, published in 1837) and Sonntagsmorgen (1836, published 1849), the first of his three posthumously published Op 77 duets.
Professionally speaking, Mendelssohn was at the summit of his powers. His happiness was increased further still by his marriage to Cecile Jeanrenaud in 1837, an extremely pretty girl whose quiet and calm disposition complemented Mendelssohn’s delicate nature to perfection. It was a happy marriage, one that (to Felix’s great relief) gained the approval of Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny, and produced no fewer than five children.
Between 1837 and 1841 Mendelssohn spent most of his time based in Leipzig, interspersed with visits to his beloved England. Gradually, however, the severe workload began to take its toll, both physically and emotionally. The enforced neglect of family and close friends caused him untold agonies in the small hours. Yet, creatively speaking, this was an unusually productive period that included a number of particular delights including the concert overture Ruy Blas, the D minor Piano Concerto (No 2), the three Op 44 string quartets, and First Piano Trio.
By far the greater number of songs featured in this recital date from this unusually fertile period in Mendelssohn’s cruelly short yet blindingly successful career. Three date from 1837. Suleika (published the same year) exchanges the spiritual uplift of Schubert’s 1821 adaptation of the same words (D717) for a more overt emotional style, as the minor-key plaintiveness of the first two stanzas is resolved by a sunlit move to the tonic major (accompanied by a mild tempo injection). Im Kahn and Die Freundin are gently innocent plaisantries that hardly deserved the ignominy of having to wait until 1888 and 1960 respectively before being seen safely through the printing presses.
The third of the Op 77 duets, Lied aus Ruy Blas (1839, published 1849) also dates from this period—an emotionally ambiguous setting whose breathless flight shifts restlessly between the major and minor modes. Two further duets, Abendlied and Wasserfahrt, both composed and published sometime between 1837 and 1839, are short, undemanding settings, the former dreamy and idealist in nature, the latter a storm-tossed, grief-stricken farewell from a sailor to his lover.
Mendelssohn’s final years at the Gewandhaus are marked by four solo settings. Herbstlied (1839 published 1850), the second of the three Lieder Op 84, adopts Mendelssohn’s customary habit of varying the accompaniment to the final stanza, although here he also subtly alters the vocal line until the by-now-familiar refrain re-emerges as before in the tonic major. In Morgengruss (composed and published 1839) Mendelssohn displays an almost Schubertian simplicity and artlessness, the piano and vocal line intertwining and interacting in a way that the Leipziger’s predominately ‘tune-and-accompaniment’ textures otherwise rarely allowed. No less simplistic in approach is Hirtenlied (1839, published 1843), marked by a radiant move to the tonic major for the third stanza at the welcome mention of Sommer, and some gentle syncopation (a common enough rhythmic device, yet rarely encountered in Mendelssohn’s songs) from the piano at the close. The rumbustious five-stanza Warnung vor dem Rhein (1840, published 1849) is treated to a straightforward verse-and-chorus setting, its slightly rustic, blustering gait gently hinted at by the overall instruction scherzando.
During 1841, Mendelssohn was seduced away from Leipzig as part of an ill-fated move to Berlin where the infamous political intrigues and petty jealousies (in addition to a pointed uninterest in his new opera, Antigone), reduced the composer to a state of exhaustion within a matter of months. One can sense the stress that he was under in Ich hör ein Vöglein (1841, published 1846). The extraordinary modulatory middle section, activated by the words ‘Ich hör ein leises Klagen’ (‘I hear a faint voice’) tonally moves in the short space of fourteen bars of 2/4 Andante con moto through the tonic minor, flattened leading-note, dominant minor, tonic minor, dominant major and finally home again. In comparison, Das Schifflein (1841, published 1852) arguably relies a little too heavily on Mendelssohn’s favourite swaying 6/8 rhythms, yet it too has a surprise up its sleeve when at the words ‘Hart stösst es auf dem Strande’, the composer switches very briefly to 2/4 time and hints at the relative minor. The Rhenish folksong, O Jugend, o schöne Rosenzeit (1841, published 1843), is a delightful setting whose third stanza deceptively creates the illusion of moving more swiftly as a result of the pianist’s right-hand flowing semiquavers.
In order to get away from it all, during the summer of 1842 Mendelssohn went on a tour through Switzerland with his wife and a couple of friends, going for long walks, painting, catching up with old acquaintances, and most importantly filling an entire notebook with sketches for his oratorio Elijah. Later that year he met the young Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert for the first time, an encounter that was to dictate the course of the five years remaining to him. Like Handel before him, Mendelssohn found himself so warmly welcomed that Britain became his adopted home. The ‘Scottish’ Symphony (completed 1842) revealingly carries a dedication to Queen Victoria.
Such was Mendelssohn’s impact in Britain that in 1846 he was appointed Director of the Birmingham Festival and as its chief attraction he decided to present the first performance of his newly completed oratorio, Elijah. The premiere on 26 August was a triumphant success, the 2000-strong audience losing all sense of decorum and, breaking with the prevailing custom regarding religious works, positively roared their approval.
In April 1847 Mendelssohn returned to Britain for the last time to conduct six performances of Elijah. Prince Albert was so deeply moved that he wrote in Mendelssohn’s score the inscription: ‘To the noble artist who, though encompassed by the Baal-worship of false art, by his genius and study has succeeded, like another Elijah, in faithfully preserving the worship of true art …; to the great master whom, by the tranquil current of his thoughts, reveals to us the gentle whisperings, as well as the mighty strife of the elements, to him is this written in grateful remembrance by ALBERT’.
From this idyllic period comes An die Entfernte and Das Ährenfeld, both composed and published in 1847, the former as carefree a song as Mendelssohn ever composed, the latter a heartwarming duet whose gentle legato ending provides the perfect foil to the skipping delights of the remainder. Mendelssohn would not live to see either into print.
Time was fast running out. On 14 May Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny died quite suddenly from a stroke she suffered when conducting, dealing an incalculable emotional blow to the composer. He never really recovered and, after a slight stroke, passed away himself the following November. His wife Cecile, whose grief remained inconsolable, died six years later aged only thirty-six.
If Mendelssohn was in the possession of a talent that was almost inexhaustible in terms of its promise and potential, he ultimately lacked the inner determination and monumental strength of personality required to develop his powers to their fullest extent. He was a sensitive man who was inwardly destroyed by his constant and caring attempts to counterbalance his natural desire to utilize his extraordinary capabilities with his need for a small number of private, intimate relationships away from the exhausting demands of being an idolised musical celebrity.
Julian Haylock © 2001
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