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A concerto in the closet - on Mendelssohn's Concerto n. 3 (Sistema Musica, 2/2009)

As is known, in recent years the music of Felix Mendelssohn has (finally) become the object of renewed attention, among musicologists and performers, as well as recording companies and music organizers. This positive trend has also led to the rediscovery of numerous unpublished pieces. In fact, Mendelssohn, like Schubert, published only a small part of his work during his lifetime, leaving "in the closet" not only some important works, now super-famous (like the Italian Symphony), but also a large quantity of unfinished pieces, many of which have not been fully catalogued (1).
By far the most interesting fragment is the Concerto in E minor for piano and orchestra, which was reconstructed in 2006 by the conductor and composer Marcello Bufalini. The manuscript (undated), still kept in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, consists of 22 pages, the first 13 of which contain a piano reduction of the first and second movement, while the remaining 9 show the score at the start of the first movement. The first two movements are therefore complete as far as the formal plan is concerned, but the orchestration is partial, although there are many markings that allow us to ascertain the timbres the composer may have had in mind. The third movement, however, is barely sketched: the manuscript includes the outlines of two themes, both in E major, but these are not developed. The first is in 2/2, and was used by Bufalini as a transition between the end of the second movement and the main theme of the third: the theme that forms the second fragment, in 6/8, with a light and dance-like character. In addition to these two thematic outlines, Mendelssohn drafted a third melodic element, consisting of a rising line, unharmonized, in groups of four sixteenth-notes. Though still in the key of E major, this third idea is difficult to integrate with the other two due to its different metric connotations, and Bufalini used it for the piano cadenza before the final coda.
From the numerous letters he wrote it is easy to hypothesize that Mendelssohn had already conceived what he called his “third Concerto for piano and orchestra”(2) as early as 1838 – that is to say at the same time as the famous Violin concerto – and that he had actually worked on the score between 1842 and 1844. One wonders, then, why he stopped and didn't complete the third movement. Today we can only put forward some hypotheses. One of the most attractive, held by the authoritative American scholar Larry Todd, is that in 1844 Mendelssohn allowed many ideas originally conceived for the Piano concerto to “migrate” into the Violin concerto op. 64, which he was finishing at the time. This idea is supported by the large number of elements shared by the two compositions, evident if the melodic contours of first and second theme of the respective first movements are compared.
It is nevertheless reasonable to suggest that Felix would presumably have finished his third Piano concerto, had he only lived a few years longer: many other of his works took him several years to complete. In the ’40s, moreover, Mendelssohn's commitments as music organizer and conductor were growing rapidly, to the extent that he was not able to dedicate all the time he would have liked to composing. It seems, in fact, that this excessive work load was one of the main causes of his premature death – in 1847 –, which prevented him from completing some important compositional projects (including, in addition to the above-mentioned Concerto, also the opera Lorelei). In order for these works to come back to life it is necessary to reconstruct their unfinished parts, so as to render them suitable for concert performance. And Marcello Bufalini has certainly done a good job, allowing the Concerto in E minor to finally leave the closet where it had been locked away for over 160 years.
(1) The first catalogue of all Mendelssohn's works, compiled on scientific criteria by Ralf Wehner (Breitkopf), is due to be issued in 2009. 
(2) - It would actually be the fourth, if we include the youthful Concerto in A minor (1822) for piano and strings.