Hugo Wolf was born in 1860 in Styria, now Slovenia, then a part of the Austrian
Empire. His father was a music-loving leather tradesman who taught him the
rudiments of piano and violin. Without having finished high school, he went in 1875 to the Conservatory in Vienna where he was a poor student, subsequently being dismissed in 1877. From the age of seventeen Wolf depended mostly upon himself both for his musical training and for his living expenses. He supported himself by giving piano lessons and performing small-scale engagements, and in 1884 he became music critic for the Salonblatt, a Viennese society paper, where his uncompromising, stinging and sarcastic style won him a notoriety which was not helpful to his future prospects.
Wolf composed in periods of feverish creative activity, which alternated with barren periods of deepest depression during which he was tormented with the anxiety that his creative well had dried up forever. By the end of 1891 he had composed the bulk of his works on which his fame chiefly rests: 53 Mörike Lieder, 20 Eichendorff Lieder, 51 Goethe Lieder, and the near 90 songs of the Spanisches and Italienisches Liederbuch.
Eduard Mörike (1804–1875) was a pastor, a painter and the author of some of the most exquisite, ardent, and lyrical German poetry. Scholar Richard Wigmore explains: “His range was extraordinarily wide, encompassing ideal, unhappy and erotic love, joy in the natural world, religious mysticism, the supernatural, whimsy and broad or ironic humor—all themes richly represented in Wolf’s Mörike collection.” Wolf wrote all 53 Mörike Lieder between February and November 1888. Over the course of the 2014-2015 season, Emmanuel Music will present the Mörike Lieder in its entirety.
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, the great Jewish thinker of the Enlightenment, was born in Hamburg in 1809, the son of a prosperous banker. Much of Mendelssohn’s childhood was passed in Berlin, where his parents moved when he was three, to escape Napoleonic invasion. When he was a boy, his father regularly invited professional musicians to his home to join the family in informal music-making. Many distinguished non-musicians were also invited, including the poet Goethe, with whom young Felix became great friends.
Composer, pianist, organist, conductor, and visual artist, Felix Mendelssohn possessed prodigious talents that not only rivaled but surpassed those of Mozart. By the age of sixteen, Mendelssohn produced his first masterwork, the Octet for Strings, Op. 20, and the following year saw the completion of the luminous A Midsummer Night’s Dream concert overture. Rigorously schooled in Bach counterpoint, Mendelssohn, at the age of twenty, gained international fame and sparked revived interest in the music of J. S. Bach by conducting the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion since Bach’s death. During his tenures as conductor in Düsseldorf (1833-1835) and Leipzig (1835-1845), Mendelssohn rekindled interest in the music of Handel, and premiered other works, including Schubert’s newly discovered Symphony No. 9.
One of the unique characteristics of Mendelssohn’s development as a composer is that, starting from a high Classical point of view, he moved almost simultaneously in two opposite historical directions. In his teens, he was wooed both by the music of the late Classical and early Romantic periods, and by the craft of Bach and Handel, for whom he developed intense admiration, even reverence.
Variations Concertantes in D Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 17
The Variations Concertantes were written in 1829 for Mendelssohn’s younger brother, Paul, a good amateur cellist. The word concertante signals a virtuosic piece showcasing solo instruments. There is an original theme followed by eight variations, played without repeats and flowing seamlessly into one another
Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 1
Perhaps the most important and enduring influence on Felix Mendelssohn’s musical education was Carl Friedrich Zelter, a prolific composer who set the poems of Goethe to music. Zelter encouraged his study of Handel, J. S. Bach, Haydn and Mozart, and by the time Felix was ten his creative output reflected a synthesis of these styles. Starting at the age of eleven, Mendelssohn wrote over 100 compositions, including a violin sonata, three piano sonatas and even two operas!
The Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, his first published work, was composed in 1822 during a family holiday in Switzerland when Mendelssohn was thirteen years old, and reveals his breadth of style, range of emotion and scope of invention. The first movement is cast in classic sonata allegro form, the second spins a lyrical theme that looks forward to his Song Without Words, the scherzo trips along blithely, while the final movement reprises themes and the form of the first movement, closing with bravura flourish.
Violin Sonata in F minor, Op. 4
Composed in 1825, when Mendelssohn was sixteen, the Violin Sonata in F minor elegantly blends the formality and balance of the 18th century with more than a hint of Beethoven-like turbulence.
The sonata begins with a slow, unaccompanied recitative-like passage for the violin. When the piano ambiguously joins, via a half cadence, the tempo immediately shifts to an allegro. The middle movement, a plush and dreamy poco adagio, gives way to the dancing 6/8 of the finale. The sonata ends as it began, with a quasi-cadenza for the violin that leads to an elusive close.
- Ryan Turner (2014)
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13
Mendelssohn began the score of the quartet in July 1827 and completed it on 27 October 1827. The piece was published as Mendelssohn’s Op. 13 in 1830. On 14 February 1832 the work was premiered in Paris by violinists Pierre Baillot and Eugène Sauzay, violist Chrétien Uhran, and cellist Louis Norblin.
“Ist Es Wahr?” (Is it true?) The adolescent Mendelssohn poses this question in a song composed in 1827, a setting of his friend Johann Gustav Droyson’s poem “Frage.” Mendelssohn was desperately in love, possibly with Betty Pistor, a singer in the choir he accompanied on Friday nights in Berlin. Material from the song would serve as the thematic backbone of the A minor string quartet that Mendelssohn would start composing later that year.
The Mendelssohn family made sure to keep up with the latest musical trends, and in the 1820s this meant being familiar with the works of Beethoven, who by this time was well into his late period. Mendelssohn’s father, Abraham, was not terribly fond of Beethoven’s music but he made sure to purchase all of his works directly after they were published for his children’s study. This would prove to be crucial to Mendelssohn’s development as a composer (along with his grandmother’s gift of the score to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1824). The young Mendelssohn’s fascination with the late quartets of Beethoven is evident in a letter he wrote to his friend, the Swedish composer Adolf Frederick Linbad:
“Have you seen his new quartet in Bb major [Op. 130]? And that in C# minor [Op. 131]? Get to know them, please. The piece in Bb contains a cavatina in Eb where the first violin sings the whole time, and the world sings along… The piece in C# has another one of these transitions, the introduction is a fugue!!”
Beethoven’s death in early 1827 may have pushed Mendelssohn past the anxiety of influence that most composers after Haydn suffered when it came to writing string quartets. Up until this point Mendelssohn’s chamber music output included the three piano quartets Opp. 1-3, Octet Op. 20 and Viola Quintet Op. 18—all masterworks in their own right but also genres that did not have as much precedence.
References abound to Beethoven’s quartets in Op. 13 (which is Mendelssohn’s first, written slightly before the String Quartet in Eb Major, Op. 12). The work begins very similarly to Beethoven’s Op. 132 (also in A minor), featuring a slow lyrical introduction followed by a swirl of sixteenth notes and then a declamation of the main theme. The viola’s arpeggiated passage at the end of the first movement makes reference to Beethoven’s Op. 74. The second movement mixture of lyrical song and fugato is a direct reference to Beethoven’s Op. 95.
Mendelssohn uses Beethoven’s method of providing unity throughout a composition by linking all four movements through motivic references to the “Ist Es Wahr” theme taken from the “Frage” setting. He wrote that “[y]ou will hear its notes resound in the first and last movements, and sense its feeling in all four.” His extensive use of counterpoint in the quartet reveals an indebtedness not only to Beethoven but also to Bach.
The introduction of “poetic meaning” into Op. 13 also pays homage to Beethoven’s use of recitative in Op. 132 and the Ninth Symphony as well as the “Muß es sein?” (Must it be?) question posed in Op. 135. Mendelssohn’s use of his “Frage” setting propels us fully into the Romantic era. Direct quotations occur in the introduction of the first movement as well as in the closing coda of the last movement, an extended restatement of the first-movement introduction. Only the question is asked in the first movement: “Is it true that you’ll always be waiting for me beneath the arbor?” This propels us into a dramatic narrative spanning all four movements of the quartet, where the transformation of the “Ist Es War?” theme conveys a wide range of emotions brought about by posing that question. Finally, at the close of the fourth movement the answer from the “Frage” setting is quoted: “What I am feeling is only understood by her who feels with me and who always remains true to me.”
Mendelssohn wrote to his sister about a “very dubious compliment” that he received from one Abbé Bernardin at the 1832 premiere of the work in Paris. The Abbé was sitting next to Mendelssohn at the performance and whispered to him after the recitative section starting the fourth movement, “He has that in one of his symphonies.” The confused Mendelssohn proceeded to ask who the Abbé was referring to and he responded, “Why, Beethoven, the composer of this
- Daniel Doña (2014)