By Roberto Prosseda, published on Piano Today (Autumn 2005)
Although Felix Mendelssohn is one of the most famous names among the Romantic composers, his music, with the exception of a few works, is mostly unperformed. Even more surprisingly, an important part of his production remains unpublished, existing only in autograph versions kept in a handful of libraries.
Mendelssohn has been a victim of many misunderstandings. His music has been criticized as too academic, too conservative, lacking in passion and in individuality. Wagner wrote a terrible article against Mendelssohn, trying to make him an example of the inferiority of Jewish composers. Yet Wagner himself was one of the composers who took inspiration and even examples from Mendelssohn’s music! During the reign of Nazism, the performance of Mendelssohn’s works was strictly forbidden and his statue in Leipzig, in front of the Gewandhaus, was torn down on November 9, 1936. (Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, on tour with the London Philharmonic, had visited the statue the day before. When he returned to lay a wreath he found only flowerbeds.) Many of Mendelssohn’s manuscripts remained hidden in libraries in Eastern Germany and in other countries of Eastern Europe, mostly in Poland. Some of them—those kept at the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek in Berlin—became available to Western musicians only in the 1990s, after the unification of Germany.
In 1877, Breitkopf & Härtel published the Mendelssohn “complete edition”, edited by Julius Rietz and recently reprinted by Dover Publications. However, this edition is not complete at all. It is missing a lot of compositions, especially those from the composer’s youth. It includes only three piano sonatas (Op. 6, Op. 105 and Op.106), while Mendelssohn actually completed at least seven piano sonatas; the other four are still unpublished. In 1997 Breitkopf launched the new Leipzig Mendelssohn Ausgabe (LMA), which will be completed in about 50 years, and should also include a critical edition of all the previously unpublished pieces.
I had the privilege of working directly on the manuscripts while preparing for the performance of many of these unknown piano works. Mendelssohn’s handwriting is very clear and detailed, expressing much more meaning than a printed score. Usually, there are few corrections written on the autographs, even though most are only draft copies. Only in a few cases are there cuts or cancellations (mostly in the Fantasia), and some of these could have been made not by Mendelssohn, but by his teacher Carl Zelter, as they clearly seem to have been written afterwards. Furthermore, the original score without cuts usually sounds more convincing—the deleted bars often contain very interesting and unusual harmonic solutions (which would probably be considered too extreme by his teacher). In this article I will describe some of the most interesting unknown piano works, including some that I recorded last January for the CD Mendelssohn Discoveries (Decca 476 3038), as well as a world premiere that you’ll find in this issue.
During his short life, Mendelssohn travelled a lot, and he often wrote pieces as a gift for a family who hosted him, or simply as an expression of friendship. This is the case with the Adagio and Presto Agitato, composed in 1833 for Mary Alexander, an English woman who kept a collection of short music pieces in her “Music Box”, which also contained works dedicated to her by Fanny Mendelssohn, Moscheles, Hummel, and Pixis.
The opening Adagio presents many elements typical of the mature Mendelssohn, such as a passionate and intimate lyricism, a clear contrapuntal texture and original chromatic harmonies. The Presto Agitato, introduced by an intense crescendo on a long pedal point, has an amazing rhythmic power, expressed through brilliant piano writing characterised by a staccato articulation in alternating hands. This Presto Agitato is a different version of the last part of the Capriccio Op. 33 No. 3.
The Capriccio in E flat major-minor, written in 1824, 11 minutes long, is among the most important “discoveries.” It also starts with a cantabile introduction (Andante, in E flat major), followed by a passionate Presto (in E flat minor). Mendelssohn was only 15 when he wrote this music, but he was already an experienced musician, having composed three operas, 13 Symphonies, 10 sonatas for piano, or two pianos or violin and piano, and many other works (quartets, oratorios, cantatas). This Capriccio actually sounds absolutely perfect and “Mendelssohnian”, even if at some points it recalls Beethoven’s style (there are also little quotations from the last movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata, Op. 27 No. 2). The writing is quite effective, full of colour, energy and contrasts, both in the enchanted opening of the Andante and in the virtuoso writing of the Presto.
Another example of “enchanted” music is the Andante in D major (1826). Here Mendelssohn shows his ability to create magic atmospheres with only a few notes. In fact, the piece has a simple ABA structure, where the B part is a beautiful canon in F sharp minor: a perfect union of a contrapuntal skill with deep poetic meaning. After this canon, the return of the opening theme is even more magical and fascinating.
Mendelssohn is very famous for his Songs Without Words (Lieder ohne Worte), short piano pieces full of inspired lyricism. We usually know only the 48 Songs Without Words included in the old Breitkopf Edition, but actually there are many others, some of which were recently published. One of these is the Lied ohne Worte in F major, composed in 1841 and dedicated to Doris Loewe. It is one of the most beautiful Songs Without Words, for the pureness of its floating melody and the richness of the emotional meanings. The first edition was printed in a recent anthology published by Bärenreiter (BA 6568, edited by Michael Töpel) and is reproduced in this issue with the kind permission of the publisher (see page 00).
An earlier miniature piece, composed by a 12 year-old Mendelssohn as the first entry in his sister Fanny’s Noten-Album, is the Sonatina in E major (1821). This work in one movement presents an inspired introduction, Lento, which, from a simple contrapuntal opening, gradually grows towards an exciting big crescendo on repeated chords, leading to the Moderato. It is a monothematic sonata form, brilliantly written, and clearly influenced by Clementi’s style (this is not a coincidence, as Felix’s piano teacher was Ludwig Berger, a pupil of Clementi). The short development presents original harmonic transitions, similar to Schubert’s. The recapitulation, again introduced by the Lento, is shorter than the exposition, and rapidly brings the piece to a joyful conclusion.
The music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream is among the most celebrated compositions by Mendelssohn, especially the universally famous Wedding March. Actually, few people know that Mendelssohn himself realized a transcription for solo piano of the Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March, published by Breitkopf in 1844, but completely forgotten until 2001, when Breitkopf published them in a new critical edition (LMA V/8A, 2001). Mendelssohn’s piano writing here is very interesting, as it helps us to understand his ideas about the interpretation of the orchestral score by underlining certain lines as well as important details in regard to articulation and phrasing.
The Scherzo (made famous in the virtuoso piano version by Rachmaninoff) sounds very light and magical in Mendelssohn’s piano rendition: the writing is more linear than Rachmaninoff’s, as some secondary voices are cut off to keep the lightness of the orchestral score.
The Nocturne is a wonderful piano piece, so beautiful and naturally “pianistic” that it seems originally conceived for the piano. The rich harmonic texture recalls some piano works by Brahms, but the result is absolutely original and worthy to enter the repertoire of any pianist. The Wedding March is a simple transcription of the orchestral score, without the added octaves and thirds that can be found in Liszt’s transcription. The central F major episode is the most effective, with a wonderful cantabile line, enriched by the full chords in the left hand accompaniment.
The Fantasia in C minor–D major (1823) is certainly the most astonishing and surprising discovery among Mendelssohn’s unpublished piano works. This is a very original and complex piece: with a duration of more than 25 minutes, it is the longest work for solo piano written by the composer. The conception is quite unusual and modern. This Fantasia is composed of three bigger sections connected by cadences, and each one is articulated in many different episodes. There is an extremely wide group of tonalities: the piece starts in C minor, with a slow, dramatic rising octave arpeggio, followed by a sombre recitative. Soon after, a faster episode in 6/8 emerges in E flat major, leading to a big crescendo on a dominant pedal point. Then the main theme appears: a D major motive, Allegro, very brilliant and propulsive. After many developments and virtuoso passages, the recitative and the 6/8 episode come back, introducing a longer development of the faster theme. The most beautiful part of the Fantasia is probably the middle section, a 10 minute long Adagio in C minor, often interrupted by a choral motive in a major key. Here again Mendelssohn reaches many different tonalities, each one with a different expression: from a sad C minor, he moves to B flat major, G flat major, E flat major, B major, D major, D minor, C minor, and C major! It is absolutely amazing that a 14 year-old boy could write such profound and complex music, which sounds like the confession of an old man who has suffered many tragedies in his life. The third section is simpler and shorter, based on the Allegro theme of the first section, but this time in F major. It introduces a Fugato in D minor on the same theme, leading to the final Presto in D major, which brilliantly ends this unknown masterpiece—one of the most modern-sounding and eccentric results of Felix Mendelssohn’s genius. This music is still waiting for adequate distribution and appreciation.