Famous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 online

. (page 25 of 32)
Online LibraryVariousFamous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 → online text (page 25 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

one of the "heavenly length" in C by Schubert, and such noble ones by
Schumann. But Mendelssohn has the advantage over Schumann in point of
instrumentation and of general clearness (the importance of clearness was
a mooted point between the two friends and mutual admirers).

Even more enjoyable in some respects is the "Italian" Symphony in A.
It was written earlier than the so-called third, the "Scotch," and is
commonly numbered the fourth. Both were well advanced before he left
Rome. Its movements are finely contrasted. After the fresh, sunshiny,
buoyant _Allegro_, calling up the blue, blue sky and boundless green of
Italy, - brought out all the more vividly by the pensive Mendelssohnian
subjectivity of the low-running _staccato_ of the violins which sets in
right after the announcement of the bright first theme, - how impressive
is the sombre, solemn, antique-sounding, steady chant of reeds in the
_Andante_, with the soft, warm gush of mingling flutes above! It is like
passing from Italian noon-day into the rich gloom of some old church. The
tranquil, blissful melody of the _Minuet_ flows on in limpid, peaceful
beauty; and the mellow horn Trio makes a delicious episode. In the
_Saltarello_ we feel the rush and whirl of Carnival, not without a dash
of Mendelssohnian melancholy. The passage from that into the yet wilder
_Tarantella_, with its whirling triplets, indicates the very _abandon_ and
delirium of excitement, whereas the former, by the hitch in the alternate
triplet, denotes a dance in which the dancer still keeps some control upon

[Illustration: MENDELSSOHN.

Painted by Th. Hildebrand. Engraved by E. Eichens.

This portrait was probably made in 1835, Mendelssohn being at that time in
his twenty-sixth year.]

The "Reformation Symphony" (No. 5) dates back almost to his juvenile
period. It was written at the age of twenty-two. With the exception of
one bright gem, the _Scherzo_, it seems to labor under the proverbial
fatality of _occasional_ works. As a Symphony it is exceptional in form,
consisting really of only two parts, with a refreshing interlude between.
The first part, in which the idea of the Old, the frowning Catholic faith,
predominates, includes the _Allegro_ with its short _Andante_ prelude. The
second part, the triumph of the New, with its curious variations on the
Lutheran Choral, "_Ein' feste Burg_," has likewise its short _Andante_
prelude, whose rather feeble prayer for peace it answers. Suppose a
curtain dropped between the two parts, while for interlude and recreation
we are vouchsafed that happy _Scherzo_. - But it is hardly fair to count
this early effort into his symphonic period, any more than the Symphony
"No. 1," in C minor, which bears date 1824.

From Symphony to Oratorio we have a noble bridge in the Symphony-Cantata
"_Lobgesang_" or "Hymn of Praise." It is of later date, to be sure, than
the oratorio _St. Paul_, and was composed to celebrate the invention of
the art of printing, and to lend _éclat_ to the inauguration of the statue
of Guttenberg, at Leipsic, June 25, 1840. Many regard it as the most
felicitous and most inspiring of his larger works, although prompted by an
"occasion"! Praise and gratitude to God for LIGHT; the waiting and longing
for it through the long darkness of the middle ages; then the break of
day; the free career and joy of a redeemed humanity; and first and last
and everywhere the Praise of God: such were the themes and promptings
of Mendelssohn's heart and genius when he composed the _Lobgesang_. The
three orchestral movements which prepare the chorus are essentially
symphonic. From the first trombone proclamation of the pregnant choral
motive, through the rapidly unfolding, fiery, complex _Allegro_; through
the sweet, sad (almost over-sweet) tune (as of "the heart musing, while
the fire burns," yet with a slight flutter) of the middle movement,
_Allegretto_, and its alternations with the cheery, choral-like full
chords of the wind; to the last deep-drawn sigh of the rich, soulful
_Adagio_, it is pure symphony, all leading up to the superb outburst of
the irrepressible chorus of Praise. Thenceforth we breathe the mountain
air of oratorio. The work is too familiar to require description. Enough
to note the innate strong dramatic tendency of Mendelssohn, as shown in
the middle point and climax of the work, the thrilling scene beginning
with the anxious Tenor recitative; "Watchman, will the night soon pass?"
with fitful, wild accompaniment; the startling Soprano answer: "The night
is departing," flooding all with instant light; and then the blazing
outburst of full chorus, taking up the words in an exciting fugue. - It is
surely an inspired, a master-work, both instrumentally and vocally.

Of his two great Oratorios proper, - the greatest certainly since
Handel, - the one most esteemed among musicians is the earliest, _St.
Paul_, produced in 1836. It shows the influence of Bach throughout, in the
frequency of narrative recitative; in the use made of the Lutheran Choral;
in the introduction of turbulent Jewish people's choruses (_turbae_);
and in a generally dramatic conception and shaping of the whole. It
stands between a Bach _Passion_, and the more epical Handel Oratorio.
Depth of religious feeling and great dignity of style pervade the entire
composition. The music is contrapuntal, never dry and pedantic. The
overture is of quite a different character from his concert overtures; it
is a solemn, contrapuntal, sacred prelude, with the old-school profundity,
yet genial and interesting enough to serve as a good concert piece by
itself. The orchestral resources throughout are carefully husbanded,
after the way of Mendelssohn, to the great gain of true and clear
effect, affording room for great variety of coloring. He relies on the
intrinsic strength of his ideas, rather than on a noisy over-fulness of

The choruses range from grand, uplifting ones to others very lovely and
tender; others mob-like and vindictive, like "Stone him to death"; again
others of a vivid local coloring, like those in which the Gentile crowd
worship Paul and Barnabas, "O be gracious, ye Immortals," etc., full
of light-hearted, sensuous Greek adoration, of "oxen and garlands" and
ear-tickling flutes. The arias are characteristic, heartfelt, deeply pious
melodies. _St. Paul_ is the oratorio which is most sure to gain, at every
hearing, on a serious and truly music-loving listener.

_Elijah_, most popular of oratorios (after the _Messiah_), and most
familiar, requires even less comment. Description or analysis would bore.
The subject began to occupy his mind in 1838. It was finished for the
Birmingham Festival of 1846, where, himself conducting, it was received
with utmost enthusiasm. Yet it did not satisfy himself, and he at once
set about revising and polishing. This was but a year before his death.
When he returned to England for the last time to conduct it, the Prince
Consort addressed him as another Elijah "faithful to the worship of
true Art, though surrounded by the idolators of Baal." In greatness and
variety of poetic and imaginative design, in wealth of musical ideas, in
ripeness of consummate musicianship, in sure calculation of effects, it is
a full expression of the composer's genius. It abounds in numbers which
captivate alike refined and simple listeners. It betrays the dramatic
element in the opening picture of the drought relieved and culminating in
the wonderful "Rain" chorus; in the episode of the Widow who has lost her
son; in the scene between the Prophet and the wicked Queen; in the Baal
choruses, secular, impatient, boastful, impotently clamoring for miracle;
in the sweet soliloquy and meditation of Elijah in the wilderness; in
his ascension in the fiery chariot; and more or less in all the great
choruses, all very graphic. Then what lovely restful choruses, like "He
watching over Israel," followed by the perfect Angel Trio: "Lift thine
eyes"! And arias full of meaning and of exhortation, like the soprano
"Hear ye, Israel," in composing which, beginning with the high F sharp,
his mind was haunted by that note as he had heard it in the voice of Jenny

Judging from the few fragments published, his unfinished oratorio
_Christus_ would have been his greatest sacred composition. From the first
part, the Birth of Christ, we have the Trio of the Magi, teeming with
wonder and anticipation; then the chorus: "There shall a star come forth,"
which has a sweet, pure, star-like beauty, ending with the choral: "_Wie
schön leuchtet der Morgenstern!_" From the second part, or Passion, the
tenor narratives, the accusing choruses before Pilate, terribly dramatic,
especially the multitudinous echoes of "Crucify him," and the inexorable
pronunciamento: "We have a sacred Law," bring him into still closer
affinity with Bach; and even more so the exquisitely plaintive weeping
chorus at the end.

[Illustration: Reproduced from Frontispiece to E. Devrient's "My
Recollections of Mendelssohn." Sculptor's name not given.]

Much might be said of his one Catholic work, the _Lauda Sion_, composed in
1846 for the feast of Corpus Christi at Liège, very beautiful in spite of
the dry dogmatic Latin text, strange text for him! Much, too, of the three
Motets for female voices; of the Hymn: "Hear my Prayer," with its soaring,
bird-like soprano solo: "O for the wings of a dove!" of his masculine,
strong settings of eight or ten of the Psalms, mostly for chorus with
orchestra, with their Old Testament flavor; and of numerous smaller sacred

Of course so sensitive a nature, subject to many moods, quick to take
impressions and to turn them into music, was prolific in songs with piano
accompaniment. From his earliest composing days, at intervals throughout
his life, he produced sets of _Lieder_ and duets, to the number of
ninety or more. They are all musical, refined, full of feeling, some of
them strikingly original; but before the few great ones of Beethoven,
the numberless songs of Schubert, those of Schumann, and above all
Robert Franz, they retreat into the shade. Yet they have been favorites
in musical homes and concert rooms, especially in England, where they
introduced the love of German song, tempting many feeble imitators, while
awakening there some worthier responses from the kindred spirit, Sterndale

More truly original, with more marrow in them, and more of the enduring
quality, are his four-part songs, both for mixed and for male voices.
These have been the staple and the best material on which the Liedertafeln
all over Germany, and the part-song clubs of England and America have
built. After more pretentious, ingenious, sensational part-songs of later
origin, it is always refreshing to hear one of them; for they are sincere
music, thoroughly artistic, with heart and soul and poetry in them. With
them we may mention several larger pieces for male chorus, such as he
composed to Schiller's Ode "To the Artists," with accompaniment of brass.
The exhortation of the music is worthy of the poem; male choirs feel well
when they lift their voices in a strain so manly and so edifying.

We come now to a lofty form of choral and orchestral music, which we owe
to Mendelssohn. In setting two of the Greek tragedies of Sophocles he had
no old Greek music for a model. The spirit of the dramas lay in the text
of Sophocles. He had read the _Antigone_ in the Greek, and so far got his
inspiration at first hand. He took the suggestion from Frederic William
IV., King of Prussia, during a summer residence in Berlin in 1841. The
peculiar function of the Chorus in the Greek tragedies, as a mediator
between the actors and the audience, commenting in some sort of rhythmical
chant upon what was passing on the stage, and the sublimity of some of
those choruses, make us feel that there could not have been a truer
artistic idea than that of setting them to music, realizing and carrying
out their vague embryonic musical aspiration as it could only be realized
in these modern times after music had become an art. Mendelssohn's
inspiration seems to have sprung congenially from that of Sophocles; and
this music is of the freshest, manliest, most original and vigorous that
he has left.

_Antigone_ was the first experiment. He composed it in eleven
days: - Overtures, single and double choruses for male voices, with full
orchestral accompaniment for all that are lyrical in subject; melodramatic
bits, as where Antigone descends into the vault; and chords here and
there making expressive background to the spoken verse. The piece was
first played on the royal stage at Potsdam; and afterwards on the King's
birthday before a select audience, the venerable Tieck presiding. When it
was given at Leipsic, a meeting of "learned Thebans" signed an address
to Mendelssohn, thanking him "for substantially reviving an interest
in the Greek tragedy." The music has since made its mark everywhere,
whether given on the stage with action, or only sung and played in concert
rooms, - at Athens in the original Greek. Nobler men's choruses are never
heard than that rich, sweet, pensive moralizing one which sings of man's
wondrous faculties and limitations; or that superb hymn to "Bacchus"
(double chorus), - as full of pomp and splendor as the Wedding March, - in
which the composer gave free rein to his enthusiasm; or the opening
invocation to "Helios."

_Oedipus at Colonos_ he composed at Frankfort in 1844, about the time when
he began to finish _Elijah_, and write the Violin Concerto and the music
to _Athaliah_. A favorite with the men's Choral clubs is the chorus which
recounts the beauties of Colonos and the glories of Athens. The music is
wonderfully faithful to the ever kindling enthusiasm of the words.

The Mendelssohn Greek choruses are far beyond and above the ordinary
part-song, which is a much smaller, humbler affair, - simply, as its name
denotes, a _song_, harmonized in four parts. But these are themes worked
up, for single and double choir, with as complete art as the choruses in
great oratorios, only avoiding the Fugue form, which is Gothic, Christian,
suggestive of the Infinite, not Greek.

Racine's _Athalie_, often called his greatest drama, is constructed after
the old Greek model, with choruses similarly employed. Mendelssohn's music
for it, compared with _St. Paul_ and _Elijah_, the _Lobgesang_, or the
Greek plays, must to many seem monotonous, in some parts dry and tame. The
musical work, bound by the text, lacks climax. Yet there is much beautiful
and some majestic, splendid music in it. Has it a Jewish, as its congeners
a Greek flavor? The overture is very noble, with the two parts finely

During the last years of his life the dramatic tendency in Mendelssohn,
which we have traced all along through so many of his works in many forms,
from his child operettas in his father's house to the _Walpurgis Night_,
grew upon him with an irresistible momentum. His deep interest in Jenny
Lind (Goldschmidt), who was his ideal of a singer, and to whom he became
a most devoted friend, led him as the last musical problem of his life
to write an opera for her in which she was to take the principal rôle in
London. That was _Die Lorelei_, a theme as legendary and romantic, while
more poetic and more inviting to music, than the monster Norse mythology.
The composition was cut short by his early death. The fragments which he
left of the unfinished work are of such rare excellence, that one wonders
what might have been, had that ideal been achieved! Might not the German
theatre have then possessed an opera, a lyric drama, which would have
forestalled the paradoxical solution of the problem which so many, whether
musical or not, appear so overready to accept? And how long will the
fashion hold?

Greatly unlike in temperament, in character, in quality of genius, in
outward circumstances and environment, largely, too, in their ideal aim
and tendency, Mendelssohn and Schumann seem to be destined to be thought
of together. They lived at the same time, and were intimate associates and
friends in Leipsic. Each had the warmest admiration for the other. The two
together were a double morning-star in music; yet "one star differeth from
another star in glory." Opinions will not soon agree which in his works is
the more significant or glorious, which the more potent and far-reaching
influence. We do not discuss the point. If the sweetness of Mendelssohn's
music does sometimes cloy; if with all the strength of his orchestral
works, his oratorios and Greek plays, with all the Jewish masculinity
of his Psalms, his male choruses and his part-songs, one feels the
feminine, the sentimental minor vein predominate upon the whole; if his
struggles with his formidable art-problems were less Titanic than those of
Beethoven, and consequently his triumphs less complete; if his resolution
of the discord was a joy less absolute, less wholesome and perennial (for
with Beethoven Joy, joy - _Freude_ - is ever the last word, - Joy as of the
gods, admitting of no surfeit, no corruption), still there is no denying,
except by some weak caprice of fashion, the essential greatness of the
composer Mendelssohn. The most serious deduction to be made is, that he
was to a certain extent imitable. Swarms of imitators sprang up, both in
his own country and in England. Hence a certain sense of sameness began to
attach to his music, - a sameness not fairly chargeable to the master, but
to the imitators, with whom it was too easy to confound him, or through
their fog to see him falsely. Well might he have said: "Save me from my


In the Königsstrasse.]

Once Mendelssohn was overrated, in a most partisan and partial spirit,
especially in England. Now it is too much the fashion, with young critics
and "disciples of the newness," to estimate him far below his real worth.
But all new fashions bring their own reaction. In this case the reaction
will be purifying and salubrious. A reviving interest in Mendelssohn's
music will be so much new guaranty against all false, extravagant, or
morbid taste. - While music remains music, whatever may be the ups and
downs of fashion, whatever the novelties of style or method, however
startling the juggleries of brilliant execution, the genius and the art
of Mendelssohn will still hold good. Their fascination may be lost awhile
amid the louder clamor of phenomenal new comers; in more sane, reposeful
hours, it surely will return with many a sweet surprise. What oratorio
society, of high aim and standing, can afford to let the _St. Paul_ and
_Elijah_, or the _Hymn of Praise_, lose any of their lustre through
neglect of frequent practice? What orchestra can fill out a worthy season
without one or more of his symphonies and of his poetic overtures? Is any
properly ambitious male chorus or part-song club well equipped without
the _Antigone_ and _Oedipus_ music, or the _Ode to the Artists_, or the
part-songs of Mendelssohn? Can any chamber music club dispense yet with
his string quartets, quintets, or octet? And where is the pianist, however
far advanced in virtuosity, who does not like to play sometimes his
compositions for pianoforte with orchestra, or who fails to find grateful
audience for the _Lieder ohne Wörter_? Indeed to ignore all this is to
convict oneself of a very youthful bumptiousness of spirit, an arrogant
fanaticism of unreasoning modernness in taste.

Four we count above all others in the temple of tone-art and
genius: - Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven. Can we fill out a second four
without the name of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy? Choice may vary as to one
or two names in that second quartet; of Schubert and Schumann there can be
no question; some may have preference for Haydn, or for Gluck, or Weber,
Cherubini, even for Rossini; but when with the other distinctions we take
into account that of many-sidedness, all-round musicianship, can any other
four compete with Mendelssohn except to his advantage?

[Illustration: John S. Dwight.]


[Illustration: ROBERT SCHUMANN

_Reproduction of an etching by L. Otto, after a Danish photograph. This
portrait is preferred by Schumann's family as the most faithful and

[Illustration: Schumann]



Every professional musician or music-loving amateur, who examines the
individual influence exerted by our great masters upon himself, should
always hold in especial veneration the name of Robert Schumann. What an
important factor in our dearest recollections is formed by his music,
whether enjoyed in great orchestral, choral or chamber concerts, or in
the familiarity and reserve of our homes! In how many directions have his
compositions and writings influenced our musical feeling, knowledge and
taste! That which has so early endeared itself to us must necessarily
remain a lifelong companion, must, indeed, become a part of our soul;
and this particular corner in our musical heart occupied by Schumann
constantly requires fresh recognition of that spirit, which has found
expression in such an enchanting language. Schumann being, however, a true
German, both personally and artistically, the essence of this spirit is
not readily recognized by foreigners. What the latter admire in him, the
Germans love, and if they wish to express that which in Schumann's music
is worthy of their highest esteem, they use words for which it would be
difficult to find an exact equivalent in the French, English or Italian
languages; as for instance, Gemüth, Innigkeit, Sinnigkeit and Schwärmerei.
This is particularly true in the case of his vocal compositions, which
suffer in translation both poetically and musically more than similar
works of any other composer and are for this reason far from being fully
appreciated outside of German speaking countries. Schumann's instrumental
works, on the contrary, have made his name famous wherever music has
become the object of a widespread interest.

Robert Schumann's career was not rich in striking events of a general
interest, but it was of a more solitary character, revealing the inward
life of a poetic dreamer whose language was to be music; of an artist who
paved the way for a new and brilliant epoch of his art, who enlarged its
domain, fought for its dignity, and by the splendid example of his own
productions proved the possibility of his artistic creed. His works were
his life; in him there was the closest union of man and artist. Just as a
knowledge of his life and personal character helps us to understand his
music, so the study of the latter reveals to us the man, for his works are
not merely results of a natural or an acquired ability, but they form the
musical history of the life of his soul.

The twenty years during which Schumann personally exerted a great
influence upon the musical world cover a red-letter period of this
century. Only a few years before, Beethoven, Schubert and Weber had died,
closing the great epoch of the classic masters, while at the same time
preparing a new one with new ideals and new prospects. In the centre
of the musical world stood the masters of French and Italian opera:
Auber, Halévy, Bellini, Donizetti, and soon Meyerbeer, while such men as
Cherubini, Méhul and Boieldieu had already stepped into the background.
Germany still had Spohr and a number of less famous composers excelling
in some special field, as for instance, Marschner in opera, Lachner in
song and instrumental music, Löwe in ballads and oratorios, Hummel and
Moscheles in pianoforte music; but they all were far surpassed by the
brilliant sun of Mendelssohn which had just risen. He, born in 1809, heads
the list of those distinguished names, which opened a new epoch of our
art, mainly represented beside himself by Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner,
Franz, and their great French contemporary, Berlioz. Italian and French
opera, and an exhibition of meaningless technical virtuosity, formed the
general musical taste; Beethoven was neglected, Schubert hardly known;
and it looks as if by some kind device of nature just in the right time
a resurrection of the higher conception of art was brought about, no one
assisting more in the great work than Robert Schumann. He was equipped not
only with rarest creative gifts, but also with a superior intellect, a
high general culture and a thorough and sincere character, which enabled
him to persevere in his great undertaking with unflagging zeal. Alas! why

Online LibraryVariousFamous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 → online text (page 25 of 32)