The much misunderstood Mr Mendelssohn

Among the pleasures of the holiday period was a chance to get reacquainted quietly with Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Often dismissed as fripperies for the middle-class living room, the Songs contain unexpected psychological depths.

I was much taken by this latest interpretation. Click here.

Félix Mendelssohn - Bartholdy

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  • In my view Mendelssohn is still one of the most underrated composers of the 19th century.
    His “Songs without words” have an astonishing depth , but that rests greatly with the interpreter of these delicate works.
    Mendelssohn uses a most simple form here but creates through some harmonic progressions often a spellbinding effect ( often a diminished chord ,where the music ‘hangs in the air’ and looses all gravity , time stands still ) .
    The bel canto aspect of these works is well known but the accompaning structures vary greatly, from featherlight staccato to dark and thick Brahmsian chords, creating greatly different sound worlds .
    His music has often been associated with the “Buergertum” in Germany , an assessment that rests on the claim that he did not leave certain formal and harmonic boundaries and the absence of the “Tragic” is often cited .
    His music is indeed not overtly dark ( like Schumann and Chopin often are ) ,but there is an undercurrent that points into another direction.
    Many works have either a near incessant burning intensity ( like the 2 Trios ) or the seemingly carefree happiness has often an elusive lightness.

    Here are some fine interpretations as an example of what this music can sound.

  • Most underrated?? Well, maybe apart from “The Scottish”, “The Italian”, the great Overtures (Hebrides, Melusine, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage), the Incidental Music from the Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Violin Concerto and the Octet, the rest (occasionally even Eliah and Paulus) might have been brushed aside through times…..

    – However, on a list of far more underrated composers of any century, I would certainly add the following:

    CPE Bach
    The entire Mannheim School
    Etienne Nicolas Méhul
    Malcolm Arnold
    Hubert Parry
    Roy Harris
    Karl Amadeus Hartmann
    Asger Hammerik
    Vagn Holmboe
    Aarre Merikanto
    Levi Maadetoja
    Albéric Magnard (a personal favorite!)
    Zdenêk Fibich
    Max Reger
    Franz Schreker
    Franz Schmidt
    Ernö Dohnányi
    Mieczyslaw Weinberg (another personal favorite!)
    A. Panufnik
    Robert Simpson
    Vaughan Williams
    Frank Bridge
    Tadeusz Baird

    …..All very good composers worth a listening every now and then!

  • P.S: Mendelssohn is still far less underrated than for instance Carl Maria von Weber, the father of german Romanticism! 😉

    • Restricting Mendelssohn’s reputation to the 19th Century is more manageable than opening the subject to all of Music History. That said, Wagner probably had a large share in diminishing it, as he did not only express dislike of practically any living composer save himself but had a visceral hatred towards them. Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer were especially singled out as they were also Jews.
      I am not going to argue your whole list, but CPE Bach, Glazunov, Méhul, even von Weber, did not exhibit the sophisticated musical mind of Mendelssohn’s or achieved as much in their output.

  • Please also listen to the (historic) recording of Ignaz Friedman playing a selection of these gems…exquisite!

  • Not being from a “string background,” I missed out on a lot of repertoire in my early music education. Since then however, I have discovered so many joys in Mendelssohn’s chamber music. Fortunately, I heard a great deal of it during a residence at a major university.

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