Bach’s Double Violin Concerto
- March 30
- March 29
Among the many frustrations in Schubert’s tragically short career, none came close to the difficulties he encountered in the world of theater music, with sixteen failed operas in as many years. He had a habit of working with subpar librettos written by his friends; some scores he wisely abandoned midway, and others he brought to fruition only to see them fizzle. A last-minute invitation in 1823 to compose incidental music for the play Rosamunde might have helped opened doors for Schubert in Vienna’s theatrical circle, but the drama by Helmina von Chézy was a flop. The play closed, and Schubert’s music was lost for decades.
Schubert assembled nearly an hour of music for Rosamunde in a matter of weeks, pulling in some movements from existing works. When the incidental music failed, Schubert was at least able to reuse some of the new themes, as in the melody from Entr’acte III, which turned up in the String Quartet in A minor (D. 804), and in a Piano Impromptu in B-flat. This gentle Andantino movement is a perennial favorite among the suite of incidental music, with its elegant string theme in the outer sections and a contrasting episode featuring tuneful woodwind solos. The Ballet Music II features dance accompaniment in a marching gait that tumbles into a lively triplet pulse for a contrasting passage.
Aaron Grad ©2013
Bach spent most of his professional life in church positions, composing sacred music almost exclusively. He wrote extensive secular music (including the Brandenburg Concertos and many of the suites for solo instruments) while working for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen from 1717 to 1723, but upon his move to Leipzig, church duties again consumed him. In 1729, he found a new secular outlet when he took a side job as director of the Collegium Musicum, an ensemble of professional and amateur musicians that performed weekly concerts. Bach wrote various new works for the Collegium, and he also regularly mined his catalog of old compositions (especially the instrumental music from Cöthen), creating new versions tailored to the ensemble. The source materials for the Concerto for Two Violins date from the Leipzig period, but some scholars suspect that the work was recycled from earlier.
In the Concerto for Two Violins, Bach combined the florid instrumental textures he had absorbed from Vivaldi with the rigor of his own contrapuntal craft. The memorable subject of the concerto’s fugal opening begins with an ascending scale fragment that leaps up and then gradually snakes its way back down an octave to the starting pitch. In counterbalance, the solo episodes wrangle an incisive theme of dramatic leaps and descending scale fragments. The movement proceeds in this ritornello format, interspersing ensemble statements of the subject around churning elaboration by the soloists.
The stately slow movement again begins with a fugal pattern. The two solo lines dance in subtle opposition of each other, creating a smooth stream of nearly constant motion. When the voices do unite in descending harmonies, this simplest music speaks with uncanny elegance.
The Allegro finale returns to the propulsive D Minor mood of the concerto’s opening movement. The first solo violin takes the first statement, followed just two eighth notes later by the second violin, at the same pitch instead of transposed. This echo effect, featured throughout the movement, harkens back to similar examples in works for soloists by Corelli and Vivaldi, reinforcing the Italian influence in Bach’s concerto style.
Aaron Grad ©2011
Though Mozart remains Western music’s most celebrated wunderkind, his adolescent accomplishments are outclassed by those of Felix Mendelssohn, who must be acknowledged as classical music’s greatest child prodigy. No less a cultural authority than Goethe, on first hearing the eleven-year-old Mendelssohn play, remarked on his abilities, “such as I never believed possible in one of his age.”
“And yet,” noted Mendelssohn’s teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter, “you heard Mozart in his seventh year.”
Goethe: “Yes, I was myself just twelve, and like everybody else was immensely astonished at his extraordinary cleverness. But what this pupil of yours accomplishes bears the same relation to the little Mozart that the perfect speech of a grown man does to the prattle of a child.”
And to wit, today we spend little time with anything Mozart composed before the age of 20, whereas Mendelssohn’s Octet, composed at 16, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, completed one year later, are acknowledged masterpieces of the Romantic—and, indeed, of any—era.
The Symphony in C Minor (originally inscribed “XIII,” following the twelve Sinfonias for strings, but ultimately published as his Symphony No. 1) is a lesser-known document of Mendelssohn’s luminescent youth. It was completed on March 31, 1824, when Mendelssohn was only fifteen years old. If the work does not yet bear the distinct voice of his Italian and Scottish Symphonies, the C Minor nevertheless demonstrates the technical maturity on which those more fiercely original works would be built.
Mozart is the immediate model for this Symphony; the opening Allegro di molto, notwithstanding its timpani-and-brass-fueled Sturm und Drang, reflects the young Mendelssohn’s absorption of Mozart’s formal elegance. The specter of Bach, the composer whom Mendelssohn most revered, likewise haunts the Symphony, most clearly in the fugal passage in its finale. The second movement Andante, despite being the Symphony’s shortest movement, is arguably its finest, featuring a lyricism buoyed by deftly woven instrumental textures.
The Symphony No. 1 was first heard on November 14, 1824, at one of the Mendelssohn family’s private musicales, to celebrate Fanny Mendelssohn’s nineteenth birthday. Its public premiere was given in 1827 by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn later conducted a performance with the Royal Philharmonic Society in London on May 25, 1829, on which occasion he substituted an orchestral version of the Scherzo from his Opus 20 Octet for the third movement.
Patrick Castillo ©2015