Two unknown piano pieces by Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn’s piano production totals around twelve hours of music, but only a small part of it is regularly performed in concert. During the era of Nazism, the performance of Mendelssohn’s works was forbidden in Germany. His statue in Leipzig, in front of the Gewandhaus, was torn down on November 9, 1936. Many of his manuscripts remained hidden in libraries in Eastern Germany or in other countries of Eastern Europe, especially in Poland at Jagiellońska Library in Krakow. Some of them, those kept at the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, have been available to Western musicians only in the 1990s, after the unification of Germany.
In 1997 Breitkopf launched the new Leipzig Mendelssohn Ausgabe (LMA), which will be completed in about 40 years, and should also include a critical edition of all the previously unpublished pieces. As part of the LMA project, in 2009 Breitkopf published a new catalogue of the composer’s works (Mendelssohn-Werkverzeichnis, Breitkopf, 2009), by the esteemed Mendelssohn scholar Ralf Wehner. This catalogue introduced a new numeration system, marked by the use of the initials MWV, which makes it possible to clearly identify each composition.
In the MWV catalogue the piano compositions are marked by the letter U and amount to 199 in total. Here I am glad to introduce two short, occasional piano pieces that are still quite hard to find. Both of them come from guestbooks or family albums belonging to Mendelssohn’s friends.
The most recent discovery among Mendelssohn’s unpublished piano pieces is the Kleine Fuge in B minor, MWU U 96, which was considered lost until few years ago. The manuscript was recently found among the papers belonging to the dedicatee, Henriette Voigt (Leipzig, 1808 – 1839). She was an amateur pianist and a very influent woman in Leipzig cultural milieu, being quite close to Mendelssohn, Robert and Clara Schumann, who dedicated several compositions to her.
The Kleine Fuge, dated 18 September 1833, is one of the several Fugues that Mendelssohn wrote along his life, and, despite its very short length, shows an intriguing way of using the chromatic counterpoint, getting a dramatic and dark mood throughout the brief piece. The facsimile of the manuscript was recently published in the book Zwischen Salon und musikalischer Geselligkeit : Henriette Voigt, Livia Frege und Leipzigs bürgerliches Musikleben by Mirjam Gerber (Olms Verlag, 2016).
The curious and disconcerting Bärentanz in F major, MWV U 174, was composed while Mendelssohn was staying with the Benecke family in London in June 1842. The handwritten score was found in Ms. Benecke’s album and the facsimile appeared in the Musical Times in February 1909. Mendelssohn’s light-hearted approach is evident in the short text that the composer himself added in the dedication:
The real, genuine, warranted Bärentanz
as performed with unbounded applause
at the Denmark Hill Chamber Concerts
dedicated (by permission)
the gooseberry eaters at Benecke castle by their
humble colleague & servant
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy
The manuscript presents the indication Da Capo al Fine (very often), suggesting to repeat the whole piece from the beginning more than one time, in accordance with an undoubtedly modern notion of reiteration. Here Mendelssohn has a very modern approach in the use of the extreme registers of the piano. The two hands play a good seven octaves apart (the first and last octaves of the keyboard), producing a strange effect in the timbre that we would be unlikely to associate with Mendelssohn’s piano style. The Bärentanz is for sure the most bizarre piano piece composed by Mendelssohn. Here, quite surprisingly, we can find some stylistic elements typical of the language of Eric Satie and of minimal music, almost one century in advance.