In June 1838, Mendelssohn wrote to his friend the violinist Ferdinand David: I should like to write a violin concerto for you this winter. The beginning of one in E minor runs constantly through my thoughts, giving me no peace. David encouraged Mendelssohn but also expressed a desire for it to be ostentatious, a suitable showcase for David's talents. Mendelssohn was not used to flamboyance for its own sake and his musical temperament constantly conflicted with this wish, thus resulting in the composition of the Concerto taking several years. More than six years later, with only three months to go he was still at it. He told David: "Do not laugh at me too much. I feel ashamed in any case, but I cannot help it. I am just groping around." He constantly sought David's advice on matters of detail and changes were made even after its premiere on 13th March, 1845. It has been said of Mendelssohn that, by his innovations he changed the classical concerto forever.
These are the ways in which Mendelssohn deviated from the traditional form of the concerto:
- He dispensed with the opening tutti - in which the orchestra perfunctorily stated the main material of the first movement prior to the soloist's entry. Mendelssohn penned a mere bar and a half introduction, instead.
- He dispensed with the orchestra's pause towards the end of the movement which generally signalled the soloist’s extemporisation of a cadenza. The soloist traditionally wrote the cadenza but instead Mendelssohn wrote it himself and positioned it between the development and recapitulation of the first theme.
The movements were interlocked, rather than existing separately – e.g. a single note held on the bassoon aids the transition from the first movement to the second.
First Movement: Allegro molto appassionato
The solo violin plays a yearning theme on the E string, entirely above the stave, to the muted accompaniment of the orchestra. The orchestra punctuates the theme and adds texture while the violin slides into a series of agitated triplets, ending this new theme by handing over the original first theme to the orchestra. The orchestra’s version is dramatic and rather heavy, which is tempered by the re-entry of the solo violin. The second theme is worked into passage-work giving the soloist a chance to display his skill. A calm second subject appears after this, first provided by flutes and clarinets playing tranquillo and pianissimo over a low sustained G - the violin's lowest note. The soloist then reintroduces the first theme which weaves in and out with the second one, culminating in a series of chords during which the music moves into the development section, the soloist dramatically intoning first notes of the opening theme. The first theme's possibilities exhaustively put to the test, its elements redressed in combinations and permutations, and mood changes once again from agitation to tranquillity. There is a sudden crescendo during which soloist spins off into the carefully written cadenza. This requires consummate skill and control especially in handling the arpeggios which hit top B, top C, and finally top E. The orchestra quietly steals in with the recapitulation of the first theme, which builds up to a crescendo, ending with the solo violin reiterating the second main subject, which was previously in G major but now has switched to E major. But the note of troubled agitation is struck again by the soloist executing rapid passage-work and double-stops, squealing to a stop on the top E. The first movement is then brought to an end by a number of chords by the orchestra, which are reminiscent of the first theme.
Second movement: Andante
A single sustained bassoon note eases the listener into the second movement, which at first seems almost uncertain of its own mood. But the entry of the soloist’s charming and sublime theme silence these doubts, though it is not without its darker hues. Tonal colour is added by the mellower of the woodwinds: the clarinets and the bassoons. The earlier darkness suddenly asserts itself with the entry of the orchestra and the soloist echoing this theme with constant double-stopping. This theme is stately but tinged with sadness. Then, like clouds clearing, almost as suddenly as it disappeared, the first tranquil theme reappears, full and ripe. The violin then makes its way up the scale and then returns, gently alighting on the last note of the movement.
Third movement: Allegro non troppo – Allegro molto vivace
The soloist introduces this movement, with the orchestra repeating and accompanying the theme. Then the bassoons, bass and drums usher in the soloist’s playful theme, that chases itself like a kitten chasing a ball of string, and then runs away with the theme, joyfully and triumphantly presenting it to the orchestra. The orchestra then treats this theme in a more dignified manner, while the soloist still scampers about and weaves in and out of the music. The orchestra however, infected by the jollity of the soloist’s theme, joins the fun after a few good natured pizzicato jeers from the soloist. While the orchestra discovers the theme, the soloist suddenly launches into a mature, almost serious melody, but seemingly unable to resist the charm of the game. The orchestra then cunningly, almost while the soloist is not looking, steals its second theme and plays with it till the soloist’s moment of discovery which is ushered in by the violin’s recapitulation of the first theme. The orchestra and soloist agree just in time for the showstopper: the final cadenza. The soloist performs a series of ascending trills while the flutes restate the first theme – then almost with a sense of relief descends the scale rapidly. A final flourish from the violin and series of chords bring the concerto to a sparkling and optimistic close.
I am biased towards Isaac Stern’s performance recorded with the Boston Symphony Orchestra as it definitely has a more Romantic feel to it. I find Maxim Vengerov’s performance, though technically brilliant, too stately to convey the charm of this concerto. However, both are worth a listen as well as a fairly recent recording by Mayumi Seiler accompanied by the City of London Sinfonia. Seiler’s passion is quite palpable and she manages to capture the nuances and shifts in mood with something close to perfection.
- Concise Dictionary of Music. London: William Collins & Sons, 1986.
- The Great Composers: Their Lives and Times. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1987.
- Sleeve notes