Mendelssohn and His Mentors

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Johann Sebastian Bach

Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D

Bach also produced at least four orchestral suites for the Collegium Musicum. Manuscript sources date the Orchestral Suite No. 3 to around 1731, with some of the parts in Bach’s own hand, and others attributable to his son Emanuel (who happened to be Telemann’s godson). Bach’s opening movement is a quintessential model of the French “Ouverture” tradition, with a grand introduction built from dotted rhythms giving way to a lively fugue.

The second-movement Air, known familiarly as the “Air on the G String,” was made famous through a nineteenth-century rendition by violinist August Wilhelmj, who transposed the melody so he could play it all on his lowest string.

The first of the dances, the Gavotte, features a heavy pulse of two beats per measure. In the sprightly Bourée that follows, trumpets and timpani enliven the pulse by accentuating the weak beats. The closing Gigue retains the reeling triplet pulse of its British folk source.

Aaron Grad ©2016

Ludwig van Beethoven

Quartet in A Minor, Heiliger Dankgesang (arr. for strings)

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Felix Mendelssohn

Nocturno in C for Eleven Winds

In July 1824, Mendelssohn departed from Berlin with his father and traveled to the resort Bad Doberan, the summer residence of the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, near Rostock and the Baltic. Unaccustomed to leisure time, the young composer swam in the ocean for the first time, but otherwise pursued a routine scarcely describable as idle. He was presented at court, where he played the piano; immersing himself in Cicero and Homer, he polished his Latin and Greek; and he sketched the Doberan Kloster, the site of a former Cistercian monastery. While not working on his opera The Wedding of Camacho (Die Hochzeit des Camacho) he solved a taxing musical riddle from his composition teacher, C. F. Zelter, who had transposed some countersubjects from a fugue in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier into different keys, and then challenged his prize student to supply the missing subject.

Among the musical diversions of the resort was a wind band with personnel of eleven musicians: one flute, two clarinets, two oboes, two bassoon, two French horns, one trumpet, and a bass-horn. The last named, a novelty of English provenance, prompted Felix to send a description to Berlin. Related to the ancient serpent, it possessed a “lovely, deep tone,” and resembled “a watering can or a syringe.” For this ensemble Mendelssohn quickly composed the Notturno in C, later revised for a larger wind ensemble and finally released in 1839 as the Ouvertüre für Harmoniemusik, Op. 24. Bipartite, it joins a softly illuminated Andante to a vivacious sonata-form movement. The principal theme appears to recall Carl Maria von Weber’s Preciosa Overture (1821), in which a wind band presents a gypsy march in the same key. The closing bars of Mendelssohn’s overture contain a phrase reused nearly intact in his Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture of 1826.

R. Larry Todd ©2012

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Felix Mendelssohn

Octet in E-flat for Strings

Mendelssohn’s reputation as Western music’s greatest prodigy could rest on the magnificent Opus 20 Octet alone, for it far exceeds any accomplishment of Mozart, Schubert, or any other wunderkind by the age of sixteen. But more than an impressive show of precocity, the Octet is bona fide masterpiece irrespective of the composer’s age.

Throughout the work, Mendelssohn displays an uncanny mastery of sonority, exploring the various textures afforded by the ensemble at hand. Witness its unforgettable opening, first violin soaring above expectant tremolandi. A crooning duet between fourth violin and first viola introduces the lyrical second theme. As Mendelssohn develops this idea, the first violin continues to comment with fragments of its cavalier opening melody. The movement’s development section is rife with Beethovenian Sturm und Drang; tentative syncopations build to an exhilarating crest, as all eight parts come together in a fortissimo sixteenth-note run to the recapitulation.

The thoughtful Andante provides a foil for the first movement’s forward thrust. Without losing anything of the ensemble’s expres¬sive capacity, Mendelssohn pares down the octet texture to achieve heartrending subtlety and delicacy.

From the composer’s sister Fanny Mendelssohn, we have insight into the creative impetus behind the fleet scherzo. Fanny writes that Felix “set to music the stanza from Walpurgis Night’s Dream in [Goethe’s] Faust:

The flight of the clouds and the veil of mist Are lighted from above. A breeze in the leaves, a wind in the reeds, And all has vanished.

To me alone he told this idea: the whole piece is to be played stac¬cato and pianissimo with shivering tremolos and lightning flashes of trills. All is new, strange, and yet so familiar and pleasing—one feels so close to the world of spirits, lightly carried up into the air. Indeed one might take a broomstick so as to follow the airy procession. At the end the first violin soars feather-light aloft—all is blown away.”

An arresting fugue launches the Presto finale. But just as Mendelssohn’s deft counterpoint and fugal technique suggest his deep study of Bach, so does the symphonic breadth of the Octet’s finale reveal the influence of Beethoven. For¬tissimo octaves across the full ensemble punctuate the opening fugato, emitting a caffeinated energy that continues unrelenting for the remainder of the work. Near the end, Mendelssohn reintroduces the scherzo melody, transport¬ing the listener back to the enchanted world of the third movement before bringing the magnificent Octet to its thrilling conclusion.

Patrick Castillo ©2016

About This Program

The second movement of Bach’s Suite, known as “Air on the G String,” features one of his most recognizable melodies, while Beethoven builds on his own admiration of Bach with a fugue-like structure in the Heiliger Dankgesang. Mendelssohn’s Nocturno was revised three times at least, eventually expanded into the Overture for Winds, while the Octet makes extended use of Bach-like counterpoint along with a symphonic sensibility reminiscent of Beethoven.