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.
Hugo Wolf was born in 1860 in Styria, then part of the Austrian empire; now partly in Slovenia. 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, and was 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 Rückert, Hebbel, Mörike, and Reinick. This was followed by settings of Scheffel, Mörike, Goethe, and 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 setting 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 attention to poems of 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
Mendelssohn Violin Sonata in F Major (1838)
Mendelssohn composed three violin sonatas over the course of eight years. The one we hear today is the final of the three. An extremely ambitious work, the first draft of the Violin Sonata is dated June 15, 1838, which suggests that Mendelssohn intended to introduce it in Leipzig the following winter. Instead, unhappy with the first movement, he tossed his “wretched sonata” aside. He later picked it up and started to revise the score, only to abandon it again. Mendelssohn’s dissatisfaction helps explain why the F-Major Sonata remained unpublished and virtually unknown until Yehudi Menuhin came across the manuscript in 1953. Since then, this bracingly virtuosic work has enjoyed a new lease on life, taking its place alongside Mendelssohn’s Violin Sonata in F minor, Op. 4, of 1825 and his two cello sonatas.
The opening Allegro Vivace combines two basic ideas: a briskly striding four-note theme in dotted rhythm that surges higher and higher, and a smoother, more lyrical version moving in the opposite direction. The music bears Mendelssohn’s fingerprints in its almost prodigal melodic facility, transparency of texture, and subtle chromatic inflections. The songlike Adagio in A Major is by turns sweetly introspective and urgently lyrical, with violin and piano sharing the thematic material on equal terms. The final Assai Vivace is a feather-light race between the two partners; there’s a sense of happy exploration as the movement seems to happen in one large sweep of action.
The three epic poems of Goethe set by Hugo Wolf in today’s concert were composed over the course of less than seven days in January of 1889.
Königlich Gebet, a poem from the Persian-inspired world of the West-östlicher Divan, is, essentially, a royal prayer in which the singer petitions “let me not abuse my power.” Prometheus and Grenzen der Menschheit are metaphysical poems inspired by Greek mythology and were both set by Schubert. Here, two ways of relating to the gods are represented. In Prometheus, a son of the Titans and relentlessly defiant rebel (Prometheus) unleashes a diatribe against the worthiness of the gods, and challenges and mocks his creator. In Grenzen der Menschheit, a bit more tempered relationship to the deities unfolds, where the suitably awestruck human learns to assess his limits in relation to the power of the gods. Wolf’s settings are very different from those of Schubert. After hearing Wolf’s settings, we perhaps feel Goethe is ‘one of us’ and ‘very much alive.’
Mendelssohn Piano Quartet in B minor, Op. 3 (1825)
Mendelssohn began composing his Piano Quartet in B minor, Op. 3, in late 1824 and finished a few weeks into the next year, shortly before his 16th birthday. It is dedicated to Goethe, whom Mendelssohn had visited at least five times as a youth. In contrast to the opus one and two piano quartets heard on this series in the fall of 2016, we immediately get a sense of a composer finding his own unique voice that is liberated from the Classical prototypes of Mozart and Beethoven.
The quartet opens with a quiet Neapolitan-sixth chord on the piano that welcomes the strings in a manner more akin to Schumann. The slow movement that follows gives way to a rich and sweet chromaticism not heard before from this teenage composer. The ensuing ebullient, fairy-like 3/8 Scherzo prefigures the brilliant signature Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Finale brings back the theme from the first movement near its conclusion, providing a cohesive arc to this remarkably mature work.