Sunday, December 26, 2010

Making Ever New Discoveries in Old Classical Music

Over the next several weeks, I will be considering various aspects of the music that we usually refer to as “classical” which distinguishes it from other kinds of music. One of the first things to notice is just how much classical music is out there, a veritable ocean, as an area of exploration to provide one the deepest possible rewards in human existence.  There is so much of this music that it becomes a usual practice for the interested to discover for themselves new pieces of old music by known or unknown composers and make it their own; part of their own lives, their shared memories, their additional concert repertoire.

As a demonstration, today I'm showcasing an excellent performance of a seldom heard work by an oft neglected master of classical music; the Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), pictured above. He wrote it at the age of 13. It appears to be without opus number. Opus numbers were by tradition given published works at the time as a means to catalogue them. The manuscript for this work only turned up around 1951 and was originally premièred by Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999), who it is said purchased the rights to the piece as if it was brand new at the time, from relatives of Mendelssohn then living in Switzerland. We are certainly grateful to have this piece and such a brilliant performance of it on You Tube by Arthur Grumiaux with Jan Krenz leading the New Philharmonia Orchestra. The clarity and power of this performance reveal the gifted and accomplished French violinist with a crack British orchestra.  This concerto is in the traditional three movements:

1st Movement: Allegro

We begin in territory firmly staked out by Mozart and Haydn. But Mendelssohn is extending the form, while at the same time making references to music that's even older than the two aforementioned grand masters. Grumiaux is technically spot on, defining the lines creating the landscapes between soloist and ensemble. We will hear all of this somewhere else, and that isn't even really the point. Mendelssohn's role was more conservative in the true sense. He was arguably the father of all we recognize today as classical music; the careful recreation of the music of long passed composers. And yet with all this, note the often unexpected glimpses into more emotionally charged territory, anticipation of even operatic elements, all still grounded in the stylistic framework of Mozart and Haydn.

2nd Movement: Andante

You'd think this was again Mozart or Haydn, but wait. It was 1822 when this was written. Haydn had died the year young Felix was born and Mozart had been dead 30 years. Beethoven, though at the peak of his powers, had a mere five years to live. Already, Mendelssohn is stretching the violin concerto as it had been known into some clearly unprecedented territories, the use in this movement of repetition of a theme (really only a phrase) of ascendency and yearning, including a cadenza, and then something like a dramatic departure just prior to the conclusion, yet all kept within the bounds of strict classical form. I frankly marvel, as I have for some time with much of Mendelssohn's work, at the breadth of musical knowledge, prescient and deliberate craftsmanship and sheer discipline required to create it.

3rd Movement: Allegro

Here's the standard four step rondeau with much influence from Mendelssohn's ethnic roots, a masterful combination, plus some startlingly brilliant counterpoint, operatic interludes almost comparable to a Paganini light. There's much “fun” going on here, but none of it, and I mean exactly none of it, is going to come off without tremendous technical effort, which is also, ladies and gentlemen, quite simply a key part of the spirit and soul of all classical music.

One cannot attempt this music without a degree of discipline and serious intent. Nothing else will do and this distinguishes it from all other music. We all know of lack lustre performances that we wish we'd never heard or been part of. But they are not what we strive for. We are not merely recreating the old, this is not a museum art form as some might like to suggest, we are releasing the spirit of the music itself, with every performance, and for most of us who actually play this music ourselves, this includes those performances we play while practising, away from the stages and other probably more critical ears than our own.

As the next year is rapidly upon us, I wish to extend my best wishes to all my fellow classical musicians and aficionados of this art form, for peace, prosperity, happiness and continuing to network among ourselves and find each other throughout the world, mindful that what we are about is preserving the jewels of our civilization for ourselves and for future generations. Here's for extending the reach and growth of the cultural tribe that visionaries like Felix Mendelssohn helped begin.

Of some interest, the entire Op. 19 Songs Without Words (first book of them) also by Felix Mendelssohn, is one of my goals at this time, as I strive to extend my potential concert repertoire. I have found this music both challenging and emotionally mature beyond the years of the composer who wrote it and highly recommend it to others. It is not only old music one hears as new that classical music offers us, but the same is true for those who play a musical instrument as well.



  1. Thanks for the fine posting on Mendelssohn. I was always irritated at the often curt dismissal of his music as "lightweight." I have concluded that there are two primary reasons for the damning-with-faint-praise attitude towards him:
    1: He was Jew. (AKA not a REAL German.) Now, I know that anti-Semitism can't really be discussed in polite company, since, of course, no one will admit to being anti-Semitic. But it has been, nonetheless, the fashion for several centuries, largely courtesy of the King James Bible. (Imagine the different effect if all those passages which read "The Jews" read instead, "The Pharasees." But, that wouldn't have had the intended political effect of the original compilers of the Bible.) I digress...
    2. He was not a tortured soul. The comfortable assumption we have of artists is that only through the enduring of some form of intense, disturbing emotional or mental state, is great art produced. Well, that leaves old Felix out, as he was apparently comfortable financially, and pretty well-adjusted. OK, we know he wasn't a Beethoven or Mozart, but he was certainly a genius in his own right. Thanks again for the carefully thought-out posting on him.

  2. Ah yes, the "tortured soul” creates great music business. Well Felix was not the only musician in “comfortable” circumstances. Before him there was Bach, Handel and Haydn who all did well enough, even Mozart didn't do that badly until near the end and Berlioz, Poulenc and others later were likewise from “comfortable” circumstances. Some like Liszt, Wagner, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius were supported rather handsomely for the times. For some time in England, being a musician was so looked down upon that the very successful Muzio Clementi was forced to give up a public career in order to marry the daughter of a nobleman (he was married three times and had four children).

    Your comment reminds me of a similar circumstance in English literature involving the somewhat parallel careers of Charles Dickens, whom everybody has heard of and reads, and Anthony Trollope, who wrote at least as well as Dickens and whom few have heard of and practically nobody reads. It wasn't always so, at least not until the posthumous publication of Trollope's autobiography where he frankly admits that he turned to writing in order to earn a living. What's wrong with that? Apparently he was quite good enough at it during his lifetime, but critics and the literati upon reading Trollope's quite honest admissions, apparently decided he had not turned to his art for purely artistic reasons and in any case hadn't suffered enough to produce really great art. I have over the years grown increasingly deaf to those who insist that great art must come out of great suffering and indeed am increasingly angered by those who suppose that great suffering accomplishes very much for anyone; it does not necessarily produce great art, great souls or any of the other malarkey claimed for it. Needless suffering is exactly what it is and nothing more; senseless, to use a favourite word used to describe actions and activities of no constructive purpose.