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
Wolf begins his Goethe-Lieder with ten songs taken from the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. This was where he was most competitive with the shades of Schubert and Schumann, and he throws down the gauntlet by opening with a sequence of the most famous song texts, represented here in Philine and Mignon – Kennst du das Land? Having explored Goethe’s most famous novel, the composer now examines the poet as a balladeer and storyteller in Gutmann und Gutweib. In these first five songs, the poet delights in the neoclassical pastoral tradition set in a variety of European landscapes. A succession of enchanting songs shows us the domesticated Goethe, inspired by gardens and flowers.
Mendelssohn: Piano Quartet No 2 in f minor, Op 2
Mendelssohn wrote his three piano quartets when he was an adolescent. He composed today’s offering, the second in F minor, in 1823 when he was fourteen, and dedicated it to his teacher, Carl Friederich Zelter.
The Allegro molto opens with the first theme stated by the strings, punctuated by the piano, which then leads the way into a second, more lyrical theme, based on a descending scale. As the strings develop these themes, the piano offers virtuosic configurations. The ensuing coda sparkles into a lively dance, with cascades of arpeggios and broken chords creating a brilliant flourish at the end.
In a reverse of the first movement’s design, the solo piano introduces the Adagio’s leisurely melody in the warm key of D flat major. A second, placid theme appears, underpinned by some rather dramatic tremolos and ostinatos in the piano. After some surprising harmonic shifts, the movement closes with the piano offering an elegant and highly ornamented version of the first melody over repeated chords in the strings.
In a break from tradition, Felix here ventures an Intermezzo, replacing the conventional scherzo/trio. Originally, an intermezzo described light musical entertainment alternating with the acts of early Italian tragedies, but gradually came to mean just ‘incidental music’. Here, it simply acts as an interlude, the piano dominating the first section while the strings have the melody in the second.
In the final Allegro molto vivace, the pace is breathless and all four instruments share equally the fun, dancing through the principal themes as one. They are often in dialogue as the music whirls forward, leading to a coda in which the piano’s broken octaves and the strings’ infectious melodies conclude in twelve dramatic chords.
Gleich und gleich
Frühling übers Jahr