The Kennedy Center

Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64

About the Work

Felix Mendelssohn Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
© Thomas May

How tempting it is to take the Violin Concerto of Felix Mendelssohn for granted-as if this cherished music had always been there, plucked from the ether. Yet even at the height of his powers as a lionized musician-composing, performing, and shaping musical tastes throughout Europe-Mendelssohn worried himself into a state of nervous anxiety about getting this piece just right. That it would become prized as one of the finest (and most imitated) gems in the concerto repertoire hardly made its birth pangs any less troublesome for the composer. The eminent Mendelssohn authority Larry Todd remarks that he "came to regard the concerto more and more as a serious art an age when variation and concerto form all too often were represented by fatuous examples of mass-produced virtuosity. Mendelssohn continued to remain aloof from such commercialism."

This may partially explain the work's unusually long gestation. (An unpublished youthful violin concerto in D minor, written in 1822, nearly fell into oblivion but was revived in the 1950s by Yehudi Menuhin.) Mendelssohn intended as early as 1838 to write a concerto for violin virtuoso and teacher Ferdinand David, a close friend since his youth and concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, of which the composer was at the time music director. Other tasks intervened, but eventually Mendelssohn returned to his original plan, completing the score in September 1844. During the process he corresponded at length with David to work through aspects of technique and questions of balance between the soloist and the orchestra. Such a close collaboration between composer and performer in itself set a pattern that has been repeated in the creation of numerous subsequent concertos.

The first movement's momentum of restless passion (the score is marked Allegro molto appassionato) had haunted the composer from the start, when, as he wrote David, "[A concerto] in E minor runs through my head, the beginning of which gives me no peace." Despite the relative length of the opening Allegro, the concerto avoids seeming top-heavy thanks to Mendelssohn's exquisite sense of proportion and cross-connection. We hear, for example, a fainter echo of the opening restlessness in the center of the rapturously lyrical Andante, while it returns transformed in the vivacious, delirious energy of the finale, a gloss on the composer's signature scherzo style.

As in the 40th Symphony in G minor by his beloved Mozart, Mendelssohn draws us right into the middle of things, with remarkable drama and economy: A measure and a half, punctuated by timpani and double bass pizzicatos, sets up the turbulent backdrop over which the solo violin traces its yearning main theme. The soloist's sudden entrance -without the extended business of setting the stage conventionally undertaken by the orchestra-represents just the first of several innovations Mendelssohn employs. An especially influential one is his placement of the cadenza* at an earlier juncture so that is serves as a link between the development and recapitulation rather than as a showy "aside" near the end of the movement.

Moreover, Mendelssohn seamlessly joins all three movements together: varying a move from Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, he has a sustained bassoon note rise by a half-step to prepare for the Andante, at the end of which an interlude reprises the contours of the tragic opening theme before fanfares lead us into the springy rhythms of the finale, now in E major-the key of the Midsummer Night's Dream music of his youth, the spirit of which is rekindled in this effervescent concluding movement.

This architecture gives cohesion to the music's larger emotional arc, from the passionate intensity of the opening to the giddy high spirits at the end. Throughout, Mendelssohn continually rethinks the soloist's relationship to the orchestra-and to the act of performance. Note, for example, how surprisingly the first-movement cadenza steals upon us, while the unbridled presto ending the movement uses virtuosity merely as a means to intensify a sense of urgency.

No wonder that Joshua Bell chose this concerto to proclaim his artistry on one of his very first recordings (with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, where he is now music director). In this mature score, Mendelssohn's meticulous craftsmanship is perfectly married to his expression, and the result is a vivid, spontaneous-sounding presence that captivates from beginning to end. However familiar this music is, in a committed performance his achievement continues to astonish with its elegance and power.


[*Editor's Note: The cadenzas performed in these concerts are by Joshua Bell.]