This recording is also available in Hybrid SACD Multichannel on CKD 216.
Joseph Swensen - Director and Violin
Dedicated to Dorothy Delay
This CD was recorded at Edinburgh's Usher Hall. The orchestra is led by its Principal Conductor Joesph Swensen, who also plays the solo part in the Violin Concerto.
Rather than being solely a composer, Felix Mendelssohn should be considered a polymath – educated and skilled in music, painting and drawing, languages, the classics, as well as being an accomplished sportsman, dancer and chess player. His musical accomplishments – of which composition was always the most important in his own eyes – also include performances as a virtuoso on the piano and organ, a gifted violinist, a conductor, and an administrator and editor who has left a legacy still respected and followed in the early twenty-first century.
Born in Hamburg, 3 February 1809, Felix was the second child of Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn. Abraham was a successful banker in a firm he founded with his brother in Berlin, a city he and his family (including the children Fanny (born 1805), Felix, and another daughter, Rebecka (born 1811)) returned to in July 1811. A fourth child, Paul, was born in 1812. The family were well-off, and the children well educated. Felix and his sister Fanny received their initial musical education from their mother Lea, although others were called in to help polish the two prodigies. During a visit to Paris in 1816-7 the children received piano lessons from Marie Bigot, a player who was admired by both Haydn and Beethoven. Later musical lessons came from Ludwig Berger and then, at the Berlin Singakademie, with Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter was himself schooled and taught using instruction from Kirnberger’s Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik, written to disseminate the pedagogical method of J S Bach. Zelter probably commenced teaching the young Felix composition in mid-1819, the first datable composition performed on 11 December 1819.
Although not a performing prodigy in quite the same way as the young Mozart, family connections allowed much opportunity for the young Felix to meet and perform in front of leading European musicians including, at various times, Hummel, Spohr, Schelbe, Moscheles, Cherubini, Kreutzer and Rossini.
When still in his mid-teens, Mendelssohn was given a copy of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, a work which (after years of preparation) he revived in a celebrated performance at the Berlin Singakademie in March 1829. By this time Felix was known as a gifted composer whose works were regularly being performed – his Midsummer Night’s Dream was premièred in early 1827 at a concert which also included the composer playing one of the solo parts in his Double Piano Concerto in Ab. The earliest of his Lieder ohne Worte was written, as a birthday present for his sister Fanny, in 1828.
1829 also saw Felix embark on what can best be described as a Grand Tour. Shortly after the performances of the St Matthew’s Passion Mendelssohn left for Hamburg, and following a difficult crossing of the English Channel he arrived in London on April 21. Initially remaining in London, often performing at private gatherings (although he did conduct his overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream on Midsummer’s Day), Felix left London in late July to visit Scotland for a walking tour. It was at an assembly of bagpipe musicians at Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, that the inspiration for the opening of the Scottish Symphony (No. 3) came to him, and within two weeks he had the genesis of his Hebrides overture, which came to him while looking out at the Hebrides. A letter written to his family, dated August 7, 1829, includes the opening bars of the first theme in score. Although intimately connected with the work, it was not until the following day that Mendelssohn visited Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa.
Despite being capable of writing fast when it was required of him, Mendelssohn was at heart a constant reviser of his own works. The first draft of the Hebrides overture was competed in Rome during a visit in the winter of 1830-1, but the work was not competed and performed until mid-1832. In the case of the Scottish Symphony work was even slower, the piece not being completed and performed until 1842. Part of the delay with the latter piece can be directly attributed to his other activities. From 1833, still in his early 20s, Mendelssohn held a series of musical posts, including those of Music Director in Düsseldorf and, from 1835, Musical Director in Leipzig, where his duties included conducting the Gewandhaus orchestra. In 1838 he directed a series of four “historical concerts”, featuring performances of music composed up to 100 years earlier. A similar series in 1841 featured five concerts, the first of which featured the music of Bach and Handel, and the last having music by contemporary composers. Although not the first, Mendelssohn conducted with a baton, and it is here that the orchestral concert programme of today has its earliest foundations.
Mendelssohn’s later life saw an increased workload, often dividing his time between a newly-created (although undefined) post in Berlin, and his position in Leipzig. He was also involved in the creation of the Music Conservatory in Leipzig, heading a staff which also included Robert Schumann, Ignaz Moscheles, Ferdinand David, Moritz Hauptmann, and later Niels Gade. As his workload increased, so did his frustration at the lack of time available to pursue his favourite activity – composition. The Scottish Symphony was finished in January 1842, and received its première on March 3 of that year. His one true compositional masterpiece of his last years is his Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64, written for Ferdinand David, and premièred in Leipzig (conducted by Niels Gade) on March 13, 1845. He never managed to free himself of other commitments – a commission from the London Handel Society to edit Isreal in Egypt resulted in the first “modern” published edition – Mendelssohn clearly differentiating between the written marks of the composer and Mendelssohn’s own suggestions. The following year his edition of Bach’s organ works used similar practices.
The depression (for that is what a modern physician may well call it) in his later years never escaped Mendelssohn. Whereas Mozart suffered poverty, Beethoven deafness and Schumann madness, Felix suffered as a result of his great success, something familiar to the people of the twenty-first century. He died, months after his beloved sister Fanny, following a stroke on October 29, 1847, aged only 38.
D. Martin, Edinburgh, September 2002