Famous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 online

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edition, so to speak.

[Illustration: WILLIAM HENSEL.

From a pencil drawing made by himself.]

Meanwhile, near the end of 1840, he was prevailed on to accept a year's
engagement at Berlin, and lend his labor and his genius to certain high
artistic schemes of king Frederick William IV. Taking leave of Leipsic
with a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion Music, he became
Kapellmeister to the King. The first fruit of that was his noble music to
the _Antigone_, and afterwards the _Œdipus Coloneus_ of Sophocles; and in
another vein, the _Athalie_ of Racine. It was also by the king's request
that he wrote the _Midsummer Night's Dream_ music, into which the early
overture fitted as if pre-ordained, and his both beautiful and wildly
melodramatic setting of Goethe's _Walpurgisnacht_. Not far from the same
time he was moved to make an overture, more dramatic than any of his early
ones, to _Ruy Blas_.


From an English engraving.]

On his last return from England a shadow came over that serene and happy
life. He met the sudden news of his sister Fanny's death, and with a cry
fell unconscious to the ground. He sought relief and rest in Switzerland
that summer, painting in water-colors, and playing the organ all alone in
a little village church - what a touching picture his letters give of it!
His own hour was near at hand. A trouble in his head grew worse. He died
in the evening of Thursday, Nov. 4, 1847. He was mourned by all Europe. In
Leipsic it was as if the most beloved and honored, the soul and centre of
all their higher life and aspiration, were withdrawn. Memorial concerts
were organized in London, Manchester and Birmingham, even in Paris. To
this day among English music-lovers Mendelssohn has been a name to conjure
by, adopted as their own like Handel. Mendelssohn scholarships, busts,
statues, became frequent. And a commission was appointed to publish
selections from the mass of works he left in manuscript; nor could they
keep pace with the impatient, almost angry outcry (at least in England)
for every scrap of manuscript withheld.

Mendelssohn stands as the best modern representative of sound, many-sided,
conservative, and yet progressive musical culture. He was artist to
the marrow. Gifted with original creative genius - a genius not so deep
and absolute, so elemental, so Titanic as that of Bach and Handel and
Beethoven, nor of so celestial temper as that of Mozart; - trained to
consummate musicianship through earnest study and personal absorption
of the world's great musical inheritance; compelling himself to daily
exercise of his own productive faculty, he summed up in himself the
rounded whole of musical art down to his own time. He was the ripe
musical scholar. Haunted by original and beautiful ideas, he resisted all
extravagant solicitations of the ambitious passion for sensation-making
novelty. He kept within bounds of reason and good taste; he respected
"Terminus, the god of bounds." Standing at the height of the musical
culture of his age, he won all his triumphs without setting up new
theories, new forms of art, without resorting to questionable ways. He
was nothing if not sincere, frank, simple in his art. Within the approved
forms and principles of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, he found free air
and scope for the expression of what was in him. He never dreamed of
questioning the validity of absolute, pure music, - music in itself,
without words or programme. On the contrary, he maintained that music is a
language far more definite and less ambiguous than speech; that speech is
the gainer by translation into music, but that music is the loser by any
attempt to translate or "interpret" it in words.

[Illustration: Fac-simile autograph letter from Mendelssohn containing
corrections of a four-hand arrangement of one of his symphonies]

[Illustration: [Music]

Fac-simile autograph manuscript of Mendelssohn's most popular song for
male voices, "Farewell to the Forest" Composed in 1840.]

Of his complete musicianship there is no question. As a performing artist,
an interpreter, he was a masterly pianist. We do not measure him by the
phenomenal virtuosity of the Liszts, von Bülows, Rubinsteins, and Tausigs,
who came after him. Such comparison would be irrelevant; he was not of
their kind; not primarily a virtuoso, but essentially an artist and
interpreter. In that sense his playing was remarkable; fluent, brilliant,
vital, full of fire and feeling; his touch sensitive, decided, strong or
delicate as the phrase required; his technique free and faultless; its
perfection seemed to be spontaneous. Hiller said his playing was what
flying is to a bird. Mme. Schumann said: "Of mere _effects_ of performance
he knew nothing; he was always the great musician; in hearing him one
forgets the player in the full enjoyment of the music." Joachim says:
"His playing was full of fire, which could scarce be controlled, and yet
was controlled and combined with the greatest delicacy." His adherence to
strict time and to his author's meaning is said to have been absolute.
He had a rare faculty of playing at sight from a MS. orchestral score,
characterizing each instrument by a peculiar quality of tone. He rarely
played from book, trusting to his prodigious memory. His improvisations
astonished all; they were no vague, random excursions over the keyboard,
all digression, with which so many flashy finger-knights dazzle their
audiences; they were consistent, well-planned compositions, in which
the themes were not merely touched and set in shifting lights, but were
contrapuntally worked and carried out; thematic development was with him a
second nature. This was partly owing to his early practice in counterpoint
under Zelter.

He deeply loved the organ, and was one of the most masterly organ players
and composers of his time. For intrinsic worth and beauty his Organ
Sonatas rank only next to Bach and Handel.

For conductorship he showed a passion and a gift from boyhood, when he
improvised little private concerts in his father's house. Older musicians
did not disdain to play under his bâton. Charming pictures are given
by his biographers of the overtures and symphonies, as well as his own
juvenile operas, performed there under his enthusiastic lead. Later
he became one of the first conductors living, whether in symphony or
oratorio. He had the magnetic quality; all the grace and flexibility of
his attractive person, the electric eloquence of look and gesture, made
each point of the music felt by performers and hearers. The former never
could mistake his meaning, which was the meaning of the music. We have
heard it said by those who knew him, that in the rendering of orchestral
music, even movements of his own, he was subject to his moods, would take
the same movement at one time much quicker, with more fire than at others;
but it was all genuine, all loyal; there was a reason for it, and the
essential music never suffered from this elasticity.

His seemingly instinctive and spontaneous command of counterpoint,
already seen in his improvisation, is manifest in his organ music, in his
psalms and oratorios, in his fugues as such, in the clear, symmetrical
development of his orchestral and chamber works, in fact in all his
compositions of whatever form. He was happily at home in this soul secret
of the plastic tone-art. For the truth is, he was musically, spiritually,
a true child of Sebastian Bach: who more fit than he to be the first
exponent to our century of the long-shelved Matthew _Passion_ of that
mighty master? Through Mendelssohn has Bach gained a foothold in the more
modern world of music.

His instrumentation is a model in its way, neither too much nor too
little. Never dry and meagre, it is never bloated and excessive, weighed
down to monotony by superfluous multitude of heavy instruments, which give
each other scarcely room to vibrate freely, like so much in the "advanced"
instrumentation of to-day. It is never extravagant, bent on sensational
surprises and effects, if sometimes droll for cause. It is chaste, simple,
clear, while it is vivid, graphic, and expressive. There is no false,
exaggerated coloring, only just what suits the subject. Now it is airy,
delicate, and fairylike; now bold, majestic, or sublime; now fraught
with changing atmospheric quality, as in the "Rain" chorus in _Elijah_,
in the _Hebrides_ overture, and the _Becalmed at Sea_ and _Prosperous
Voyage_, now light-hearted and elastic, as in the "Italian" Symphony and
the youthful overture to the _Return from Abroad_. If he does not touch
the spiritual depths, nor strike with the lightning suddenness and fire of
Beethoven, it is because he is himself, not Beethoven. But alike in his
purely instrumental and his choral works, his instrumentation is always
interesting, always clear and telling, and in keeping with the whole,
always original, poetic, full of life and power.

We might discourse upon his mastery of Form. Enough to say, that with him
all is in "good form," yet not formal, at least to a fault.

So much of his musicianship, his technical equipment, of what might be
learned from masters. In him it all ministered to a creative genius of an
original, rare order, as we shall see in a slight, cursory survey of his


Painted by Begas.]

[Footnote A: At this age he had written two operas and almost completed a
third, - six symphonies, a quartet for piano and strings, a Cantata, six
fugues for the piano, a psalm for four or five voices with a double fugue,
and many minor pieces. - K. K.]

We begin with the _Midsummer Night's Dream_ Overture, in which the lad
of sixteen sprang into fame a masterly composer. Well had he read his
Shakespeare, - the bard who fascinates the heart and soul of childhood
before any child can be supposed to understand him! What a felicitous
reproduction of the fairy element in tones! The perfect fairy overture,
it is still heard with delight by old and young, and ever will be,
it is so fresh, spontaneous, genuine, such an honest emanation from
the enthusiastic heart and imagination of the boy composer. The
other movements now commonly sung and played with the drama were the
afterthought of Mendelssohn's riper period, when he was thirty-four years
old. Schumann says: "His music is a meditation on the play, _a bridge
between Bottom and Oberon_, without which the passage into Fairy Land is
almost impossible." The same fairy vein, the same dainty elfin motives,
or some of the same family, are met in many of the earlier and later
works of Felix. That vein haunted him; it was a lucky string to play
upon. Ballad movements, Canzonettas, _Volkslieder_, and the like quaint
melodies, abound as well. The Overture is numbered Op. 21. Sketched or
completed about the same time were the Octet, Op. 20, the first set of the
Songs without Words, and the first Quintet, in A; all works of ripe and
finished art of a clearly asserted, pronounced individuality. These mark
the culmination of his youthful period.

His early piano efforts are in many forms, mostly with strings. He wrote
three Sonatas for piano solo, but soon ceased to cultivate that field (in
face of Beethoven?). But he had already opened a new and original field
for himself, albeit a less ambitious one, in the Songs without Words, a
field to which he returned _con amore_ from time to time until late in
his short life. One is tempted to describe some of these choice little
tone-poems, were there room; at least the three Gondola Songs. Had he been
reading Shelley:

"My soul is an enchanted boat,
Which like a sleeping swan doth float
Upon the silver waves of thy sweet singing."

These perhaps express the daintiest, most exquisite of the many moods
and themes poetic, sentimental, picturesque, or wideawake and stirring
or heroic, in these eight and forty wordless songs. Perhaps the last two
sets have not quite the verve of the earlier and more spontaneous numbers.
But think of the _Volkslied_, the hunting and the martial strains, the
deeper meditations, the _Duet_, above all the exhilarating "Spring Song"
in A! In these, if in nothing else, he opened a new field in musical
art, in which many followed him, but none approached him. These _Lieder
ohne Worte_ are of his most genuine, most individual inspirations. There
is hardly a characteristic trait of the composer's style, as developed
in his larger works, which you do not find here clearly announced and
pronounced in these perfect little miniatures. In them we have the whole
of Mendelssohn, - we mean of the innate, the essential, not the acquired
music of the man. If to some they have come to look commonplace, it is
their own radiance that veils them.

Of his many other piano compositions, the most important are the
Six Preludes and Fugues, Op. 35; another in E minor, full of fire
and strength, his contribution to the Album "Notre Temps"; and the
_Variations Sérieuses_. All the great composers, notably Beethoven, were
fond of writing variations. Those of Mendelssohn are full of character,
and often figure to advantage in the artistic programmes of pianists. For
the piano with strings, the two Trios are the most interesting, and still
challenge the chamber-concert givers. The two Sonatas with 'Cello also
hold their own.

He loved to employ the piano with orchestra. The brilliant _Capriccio_ in
B minor, and the Rondo in E flat, swift as an arrow and going as straight
to the mark, are concert favorites; still more the _Serenade_ and _Allegro
Giojoso_, full of life and charm. But most important, masterworks indeed,
are the two Concertos. That in G minor, by the very fascination of its
beauty, and by being such a model in form, so clear and pure throughout,
has been practised so much in conservatories, and played at the début of
so many callow virtuosos, that a shade of commonplace has settled over
it. The other, in D minor, keeps itself more select, so that for the more
exacting taste it is publicly too seldom played.

And, speaking of Concertos, we must not forget the one for the violin,
which surely ranks only after that by Beethoven, and is attempted by
all the violinists. Its charm is never failing. The fine intensity of
the impassioned Allegro has something feminine and far reaching in its
quality, so that it was a rare pleasure to hear it interpreted by such
an artist as Camilla Urso, with such true nervous grasp and accent. The
middle movement seemed divine; and the finale, heralded by the brass _ff_,
is so uncontainable and full of fire, so brilliant and impetuous, that
it admits of being taken at the most rapid tempo. It is perhaps the most
popular of all violin concertos.

All the great masters have written string quartets. The Quartet for two
violins, viola and 'cello, corresponding to the four essential parts
in harmony, each maintaining its individuality, yet each essential to
the whole, is the quintessence of musical expression. Any imperfection
betrays itself inevitably; all is exposed; there is nothing hidden
under an orchestral coloring or vague passages of mere effect. The four
voices are four persons. Not to speak of Haydn, father and founder of
the race, the greatest models are those of Mozart and Beethoven. Those
of Beethoven often seem like foreshadowings in outline of later phases
in his larger grand creations. Those of Mendelssohn are less purely
quartet-like. They have more of a singing quality, - a melody with an
accompaniment, - and seem to seek orchestral development. The early one
in E flat is of highly impassioned character, and might be distinguished
as the _Quartet Pathetique_. It has a pathetic introductory _Adagio_,
followed by a passionate _Allegro_; then a _Canzonetta_, a quaint minor
strain in the spirit of some sad old _Volkslied_ or Ballad; then an
_Andante_ of profoundest melancholy; then a bold finale, in 12-8, running
in very rapid triplets. The three Quartets of Op. 44 are in a riper
style. But the first begins with a swift and fiery _Allegro_, of which
the theme is strikingly symphonic, and which has been well said to be not
quartet-writing at all, but a melody with a bass and a mere filling-in of
middle parts; not a conversation between four distinct individualities.
The Mendelssohnian ardor, depth of feeling, yearning aspiration, with
all his grace, facility, and clearness, pervade these quartets; but more
perfect as quartets are his part-songs for mixed and for male voices. His
last quartet, in F minor, written just after the death of his beloved
sister Fanny, so soon before his own, has spontaneous unity in all its
movements. It is said to have been written in forty-eight hours, in one
close closeting with grief.

Of the two Quintets, that in A, of the juvenile period, is fresh, bright,
full of life and charm, having a lovely _Andante Intermezzo_, and an
elfin _Scherzo_. The much later one, in B flat, by the irrepressible and
soaring impetus of its _Allegro vivace_, - challenge bravely answered in
the _finale_, - by the sad ballad-like _Andante scherzando_ in D minor; and
by its profoundly, grandly beautiful _Adagio_, is perhaps more popular and
always welcomed with sincere delight.

There remains the Octet, written just before the Midsummer Night's Dream.
It is not a double quartet, two quartets reinforcing or offsetting
one another; but it is a conference of eight real parts, eight
individualities. The _ensemble_, especially the fiery opening _Allegro_,
has the richness and fullness of an organ's diapasons, and naturally
abounds in contrapuntal imitation to keep eight such parts employed. It is
laid out on the broad scale of a symphony, with great contrast between its
several movements, especially between the airy-light, crisp _staccato_ of
its _Scherzo_ (forerunner of the fairy overture) and the grand sweep and
rush, like a freshet, of the _Presto_ finale. The work bears performance
by all the strings of an orchestra, and is not seldom so presented.

We come now to his poetic, fascinating Concert Overtures, already ushered
in by Shakespeare's fairy wand. Three of these date shortly after the
Midsummer Night's Dream. The finest of them is the first, scored in
Rome a year or two after his visit to the Hebrides, the outgrowth of an
attempt to convey to his sister Fanny, in a piano sketch, his impressions
of the "lonely island." The overture is often called "Fingal's Cave."
It does not deal in literal description. It is not realistic. It is the
feeling of the scene, subjectively conceived. The leading theme (B minor)
suggests the dreamy reverie of one leaning over the water, absorbed in its
commingling, fluctuating, mystic ebb and flow. The same poetic spirit sang
the _Gondellieder_. In the strong answering motive you feel the wild force
of the waves dashing on the rock-bound shores; loud calls give the sense
of distance; you hear cries of sea-birds; while all bespeaks the watery
atmosphere, the solemn silence and the mystic solitude of ocean.

Then came _Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt_, - a reproduction as Overture
of two sea-pictures from two little poems of Goethe; the first conveying
the sensation of a dead calm at sea; then the rising of a breeze, the
boatswain's whistle, the setting of sails and swinging round of the huge,
heavy hulk, the addressing itself to motion, making smooth, gallant
headway (with ever and anon great, deep, mysterious sighs!) and entering
port amid a triumphal blaze of trumpets. It is a wonderfully graphic
and imaginative reproduction of the subjects. The instrumentation is as
telling and artistic as the thematic working. The introduction of the
piccolo and of the deep serpent and contrafagotto conveys a sense of
illimitable height and depth.

The third, to "the Fair Melusina," Felix tells his sister, he wrote for an
opera of Conradin Kreutzer's, based on Tieck's _Mährchen_, which he saw at
a theatre. He disliked Kreutzer's music, especially the Overture, which
was encored, and he resolved to write another "which the people might not
encore, but which would cause them more solid pleasure." It is romantic
music in the fullest sense. In the two contrasted themes, - the first (in
F) watery, cool and rippling, tempting one beneath the waves, - the other
(F minor) chivalric, heroic, proud, impatient, - he clearly had in view
the princess Melusina (supposed to be a mermaid in the hours denied to
her lord), and the brave knight who weds her. Schumann says it revives
"those fables of the life deep down beneath the watery abyss." How bright
and beautiful the mingling colors of the instruments! With what fine
contrapuntal unity in variety the imitation and development proceeds!

More to the humor of to-day, perhaps, is his much later powerfully
dramatic Overture to _Ruy Blas_. It is exciting, with bold contrasts,
fraught with impending tragic crises, clear, strong, concise, and very
effectively instrumented. Not so great as Beethoven's _Coriolanus_
overture, it is his nearest approach to that, and shows that Mendelssohn
was capable of something more impassioned, concentrated, fateful, than
dreams of fairyland, breathings of sentiment and reproductions of romance.

Now for his Symphonies. First, his greatest, in A minor, which is supposed
to owe its inspiration to his recollections of Scotland. In its wild,
tender, melancholy melody and coloring, its romantic, breezy, sea-shore
character, it has affinity with the _Hebrides_ overture. How deep and
tender the introductory _Andante con Moto_, 3-4! And how charmingly the
kindred _Allegro_ melody, 6-8, sets out from it and runs so smoothly and
so rapidly, most of the way in octaves between the first violins and low
clarinet tones! How it winds in and out among the instruments, now quiet
and individual, now borne along upon the swelling, roaring tide of the
whole orchestra! How it keeps its sweet, sad, minor mood, relieved only
by one little bit of sunshiny major! Then, after the repeat, what wild,
strange, sea-shore modulations, the cool, mysterious thrill of ocean and
the Infinite! And when again those shuddering modulations cross the smooth
mirror, the excitement swells to a furious climax, and all the strings
rush up and down the chromatic scale with a tremendous vehemence; and it
all dies down again, till only flutes and reeds are left streaming in
the air, sliding leisurely down tone by tone, and leading back to the
_Andante_. Compare this exciting climax with one correspondingly placed in
the seventh symphony of Beethoven; if it has not that Promethean fire that
could defy Olympus, is it feeble in comparison?

In the _Scherzo_ the scene shifts to sunny playfulness. Vividly the
laughing theme leaps out from voice after voice; the instruments seem to
speak, as Schumann says, like men. What hurrying, huddling gleesomeness
in the accompaniments, like the tiny waves that crowd up round the spot
where the fountain's column falls! In hushed _staccato_ the strings
whisper a new motive, which is taken up by all and developed, with
fragments of the laughing theme; and there seems to be a pointed allusion,
fond and playful, to a characteristic of Scotch melody, in that emphatic
mocking of the cadence of a minor third! It floats sportively away, in
the violins, against a skyey background of oboe and horn tones, charming
the soul away with it in pleased forgetfulness, when with a sudden
revulsion of consciousness we are in the minor chord of D (like a great
sob, escaping involuntarily), leading with solemn, stately measure and
a sound of warning into the _Adagio_ in A, 2-4, a most lovely, deep and
tender movement, in which the orchestra seems to sing a Psalm of Life....
Upon this bursts, like a flash of sunshine over the sombre water, the
_Vivacissimo_, a most dashing, brilliant theme, pausing anon to let a more
pensive melody of reeds be heard; but with rough, impatient vehemence
the basses break off the episode, and the bacchic frenzy of the movement
storms itself away again, until its force is spent, and the quiet naïve
little reed theme gets another chance and runs fondling and chatting
along in duet between bassoon and oboe, and the strain sinks to sleep
as in the fairy overture. The short finale, in A major, is in kindred
melody and rhythm with the first _Allegro_, but with a bold and swaggering
carelessness of movement, as of a party breaking up and marching off from
a glorious carouse, to the tune (at least its spirit) of "We won't go home
till morning!"

After the immortal nine of Beethoven, there is no Symphony more perfect
in form than this, of charm more enduring, although we have the great

Online LibraryVariousFamous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 → online text (page 24 of 32)