Mendelssohn Lieder ohne Worte (Songs Without Words)
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 the 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, according to Goethe, who knew them both. By sixteen, Mendelssohn had produced his first masterwork, the Octet for Strings, Op. 20, and the following year completed his luminous A Midsummer Night’s Dream concert overture. Rigorously schooled in Bach counterpoint, Mendelssohn, at twenty, gained international fame and revived interest in J. S. Bach by conducting the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion since Bach’s death. While 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 unique characteristic of Mendelssohn’s development as a composer is that, starting from the high Classical, he moved in two opposite historical directions. In his teens, he was wooed simultaneously 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.
Mendelssohn is inextricably associated with the genre Lied ohne Worte, described by Schumann as an art song abstracted for the piano, with its text deleted. Composed over the course of his career, the Lieder ohne Worte were published in eight volumes comprising six songs apiece, and provide an essential snapshot of Romanticism. They are an ode to the supremacy of melody and a reflection of the Romantic generation’s preoccupation with poetry, as expressed in the lieder of Schubert, Schumann, and others. Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words succeed in capturing the clarity and expressivity of sung texts, but they rely solely on musical character, without the aid of poetry. Robert Schumann surmised that Mendelssohn originally composed them as songs with words and then withdrew the texts. Finally, the influence of Franz Schubert on the entire nineteenth-century lieder tradition cannot be overstated: indeed, it is Schubert who transformed the lied into such a vital medium for Schumann, Brahms and Wolf and of course, Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn wrote the first Lied ohne Worte for his elder sister, Fanny – the second musical prodigy in the Mendelssohn family- on the occasion of her birthday in 1828. But it was not until a few years later, in 1832 that he hit upon the idea of publishing a set of piano Lieder as a counterpart to a set of songs. Each “book” of Lieder ohne Worte offers keyboard simulations of different vocal types: solo lied, duet where the melodic line is doubled in thirds, and partsongs featuring homophonic textures in chordal style.
Mendelssohn never authorized the now-prevalent descriptive titles retro-fitted to the pieces in later editions by publishers. As the pre-eminent Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd writes: “These accretions ran counter to Mendelssohn’s own aesthetic, to let the individual Lieder stand by themselves, and to trust the precision of musical expression over the ambiguities of words.”
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. 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. His first song collection set poems by Rü ckert, Hebbel, Mörike and Reinick. This was followed by settings of Scheffel, Mörike, Goethe und Kerner, all published in 1888. Perhaps inspired by the knowledge that at last he was a published composer, the twenty-eight- year-old Wolf entered a period of profuse creativity. The first product of his own “year of song” of 1888 was a songbook to poems of Eduard Mörike, a dazzling assembly of fifty-three masterpieces heard in the first year of our Wolf series. Wolf was now on an astonishing roll; nothing like it had been known since Robert Schumann’s song-writing fever of 1840, or Schubert’s amazingly productive 1815. Wolf then turned his attentions to Eichendorff, setting twenty songs in thirty days.
Less than a month later, he embarked on setting the poetry of Goethe with a fierce intensity that typified this almost absurdly creative year. The psychological confidence needed to confront Goethe, the greatest German poet, was exactly what Wolf possessed at this moment. Now he set himself the task of painting a rounded picture of the immortal Goethe in musical terms. This was infinitely more complex than introducing to the public a relatively unknown poet; it brought him into competition with Franz Schubert, with Robert Schumann, and with the celebrated composer of ballads, Carl Loewe. He aimed to outdo them all, and in many respects he succeeded. Of the fifty-one texts chosen by Wolf for his Goethe Lieder, there are only twelve which were also essayed by Schubert. This alone has been enough to inspire endless discussions in lieder-loving circles about the merits of the two composers’ settings. Wolf faced up to these comparisons with panache. Schubert had scattered his settings of Goethe through his output between 1814 and 1826. He assembled, as if by chance, a formidable range of music in every mood inspired by the poet, but his Goethe songs were never planned as an entity. Wolf on the other hand set his cap at a balanced survey audible in a single collection. Thus his choices of poems were almost as important a part of his challenge to earlier Goethe composers as his musical settings.
Astonishingly, the young Hugo Wolf is dwarfed neither by Goethe nor by the other great composers who preceded him along the same path. He has the courage to stand as an equal. After listening to the Goethe settings, we feel that that he is ‘one of us’, and ‘very much alive’: energetic, lively, gossipy, libidinous, his feet firmly on the ground. The word is literally made flesh in this music. In this songbook the poet is a human being first and foremost; having established him as such, it is easier for the composer to make his listeners follow into those areas where Goethe’s achievements defy explanation and seem almost divine. That Wolf’s musical solutions for these texts often seem apt, appropriate, worthy of the poetry – in short, similarly divine – is surely one of the most remarkable achievements of nineteenth-century song.
© Graham Johnson, with edits and additions by Ryan Turner
Concert I – October 23
The first five songs on our program encounter a philosophical slant – the search by different people for an answer to some of the mysteries of life, whether through religious precepts or a more homespun hedonism. This is a very male corner of the songbook: The single largest section of the Goethe Lieder is given over to various aspects of the West-östlicher Divan, the collection of poems Goethe published in 1819. (A divan, or diwan, is, in Muslim cultures, a collection of poems by one author, often sung or set.) This was inspired by the Persian poetry of Hafiz and is subdivided into various books. Except for the first two songs, and those which deal with drinking, the pieces are assigned, sometimes as if question and answer, to the characters of Suleika and Hatem:
Cophtisches Lied IAus dem ‘Schenkenbuche’ – from the ‘Book of the Cup-bearer’
Cophtisches Lied II
Frech und Froh I
Frech und Froh II
Ob der Koran von Ewigkeit sei?
Trunken müssen wir alle sein
Solang man nüchtern ist
Sie haben wegen der Trunkenheit
Was in der Schenke waren heute
Mendelssohn Sextet for Piano and Strings in D Major, op. 110
By 1824, Mendelssohn’s seduction by the dramatic force of Beethoven’s language was complete. Though no less under the spell of Bach, the music Mendelssohn composed during his fifteenth year increasingly foreshadows Romantic sensibilities. The spate of works completed in 1824 and distinctly marked by Beethoven’s influence include Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1, the Capriccio in e-flat minor for Piano, the C minor Viola Sonata, and the Sextet in D Major for Piano and Strings. Just as impressive as the Sextet’s artistic maturity is the speed with which the young Mendelssohn completed it: he composed the Sextet in less than two weeks, between April 28 and May 10, 1824. The well-to-do Mendelssohn family regularly staged Sunday morning musicales at their home throughout Mendelssohn’s youth as a vehicle for Felix’s blossoming gifts, and the Sextet was composed for and premiered at one of these events. In addition to showcasing Felix the composer, the Sextet, which Mendelssohn designed as a virtual mini piano concerto, also spotlighted Felix, the piano virtuoso. The rest of the ensemble comprises a unique instrumentation: one violin, two violas, cello, and double bass.
The first movement, Allegro Vivace’s sonata-form structure, offers few surprises in terms of design, but audiences at the premiere must have been taken aback by the fifteen-year-old pianist’s stamina and limber virtuosity. Particularly impressive is the salvo of tricky triplet runs that closes the exposition and continues unrelenting into the development section. (Nor does Mendelssohn relegate his colleagues to the role of supporting cast: thoughtful conversational passages between the strings produce some of the Sextet’s most dramatically compelling moments.) The Adagio likewise features the piano in a concertante role. The movement begins with hymn-like solemnity; Mendelssohn instructs the violin and violas to play con sordino (with muted strings), imbuing the music with a hushed timbre. Though labeled a minuet, the elegant dance form traditional found in multi-movement Classical period works, the third movement is such in name only. Its agitated character more aptly befits the scherzo, the frenzied triple-meter movement that came to replace the minuet in the Romantic period. The Sextet’s most compelling moment comes near the end of the gregarious finale. Channeling Beethoven, Mendelssohn uses a dramatic device learned from the master’s Fifth Symphony (which premiered about a month before Mendelssohn was born): in the midst of the contentedly Mozartian recapitulation, the agitated minuet makes an unexpected return, like a mischievous rabble-rouser crashing an aristocratic salon. Listeners at the Sextet’s premiere— still struggling in 1824 to absorb the breadth of Beethoven’s fierce creativity—must have been astounded by young Felix’s audacity. For all its graceful elegance, the Sextet did much more than announce Mendelssohn as a delightful child with a charming gift. Western music’s next great artistic talent had arrived.
© Patrick Castillo