Program Notes | Feb 27–Mar 1, 2020

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto
By Laurie Shulman ©2020

One-Minute Notes

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto

Mendelssohn sought to compose a concerto that would display his friend Ferdinand David’s virtuosity—and please listeners. Departing boldly from standard concerto form, he succeeded splendidly. The linking of its movements without pause, the unusual placement of the cadenza and the psychological progression all brand the violin concerto as a work of genius.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 6

Bruckner’s shortest mature symphony, his Sixth, bears characteristic Brucknerian hallmarks: extensive use of string tremolando, repetitive gestures and an atmosphere of reverence that, in bigger moments, escalates to ecstasy. He also emphasizes chords for his melodic structure, and favors using the strings, winds and brass in blocks, as if he were using specific stops on a large organ.

MENDELSSOHN: Concerto in E Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64


Born: February 3, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847 in Leipzig, Germany
Composed: 1844; revised 1845
World Premiere: Leipzig, March 13, 1845. Ferdinand David was the soloist; the Danish composer Niels Gade conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra.
NJSO Premiere: 1925–26 season. Ruth Breton was the soloist; Philip James conducted.
Duration: 26 minutes

Early in 1856, Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann from Düsseldorf, while on a concert tour with the violinist Joseph Joachim. Brahms was then 23, and Clara’s husband Robert was confined to a mental asylum in Endenich, near Bonn. Schumann had but five months to live. Schumann’s contemporary Felix Mendelssohn had been dead for more than eight years and Felix’s beloved sister Fanny nearly nine. Brahms and Joachim paid a courtesy call on Mendelssohn’s younger sister Rebekah, who was married to Gustav Pieter Lejeune Dirichlet, a prominent German mathematician. Brahms reported to Clara:

The evening after the concert in Göttingen, we were all at Dirichlet’s. I most reluctantly, for I have a veritable dread of all cliquish ways. Joachim naturally played the Mendelssohn Concerto, during which the woman cried a lot. All rooms are hung full of pictures and sculptures of the brother. Even a drawing of him dying was hung there, and it was her brother, after all. ... I played the Chromatic Fantasy [of Bach], ‘which Felix also liked to play so much’ and the [Wanderer] Fantasy by Schubert which she did not know and also did not seem to interest her all too much

It must have been difficult to be the surviving sister of a young genius who died, like Mozart, in his 30s. Rebekah Mendelssohn Dirichlet’s devotion to her brother’s memory and music was certainly understandable. At the time, it was widely shared by the general public. In Germany and England, Mendelssohn’s music remained especially popular. Joachim, at age 25, clearly had the violin concerto in his repertoire and at the ready for this type of impromptu performance. He continued to play the Mendelssohn in public throughout his career, calling it “the heart’s jewel” among German violin concertos.

As early as 1835, Felix Mendelssohn planned to compose a violin concerto for Ferdinand David, a Hamburg-born violinist who had studied with Louis Spohr. Mendelssohn and David met in the late 1820s and played chamber music together. By the time David became leader (we would call it concertmaster) of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1836, they were close friends and associates.

The demands caused by Mendelssohn’s growing fame, however, particularly his extensive conducting obligations, forced him to postpone the concerto project for almost 10 years. He completed most of the work on the concerto during the second half of 1844.

It is apparent from surviving correspondence that the composer relied heavily on David’s advice. The sketches show extensive revisions to the work. Mendelssohn’s letter to David dated December 17, 1844, reveals a great deal about their collaboration:

Today I must ask you a favor. I have sent the score of the violin concerto to Breitkopf and Haertel and I have lately made several alterations in it with pencil, which can be copied into the parts. I have changed a number of things in the solo part, too, and I hope they are improvements. But I would particularly like to have your opinion about all this before I give up the music irrevocably to the printer. First of all, do you agree with the alteration in the cadenza and its being lengthened in this way? I like it far better, but is the part now written correctly and smoothly? … Do not laugh at me too much, I feel ashamed in any case, but I cannot help it; I am just groping around. … Thank God that the fellow is through with his concerto! you will say. Excuse my bothering you, but what can I do?

How surprising to find so much anxiety and self-doubt in the composer of such a self-assured composition!

Some critics have castigated Mendelssohn for an alleged flagging of inspiration in his mature works. Certainly that is not the case in the violin concerto. Melodically it is a triumph, overflowing with delicious ideas, all splendidly violinistic and ingeniously developed.

In its formal structure, Mendelssohn’s concerto was a trendsetter for the balance of the 19th century. Foregoing the customary orchestral exposition, he plunges his soloist directly into the fray in the opening measures. Another break from tradition is the unusual—and unprecedented—placement of the cadenza at the end of the development section, instead of just before the end of the first movement.

A single bassoon note connects the first movement to the Andante, defusing the agitation and drama of the opening. Emotionally this rapid transition demands a great deal from both soloist and orchestra. As a unifying device it is the essence of simplicity, and it works.

No less satisfying are the latter two movements, seamlessly bound by a glorious transitional passage that eases us into the joyous finale. Before we have even noticed that we have changed key, tempo and mood, the exuberance of the finale sweeps us up into a maelstrom of irrepressible energy. It is exceptionally difficult not to smile during this movement, one of Mendelssohn’s greatest strokes of genius.

Instrumentation: woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs; timpani; strings and solo violin.

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 6 in A Major


Born: September 4, 1824 in Ansfelden, Austria
Died: October 11, 1896 in Vienna, Austria
Composed: September 1879-September 1881
World Premiere: February 1883 in Vienna; Wilhelm Jahn led the Vienna Philharmonic in a reading rehearsal. The first public performance was posthumous, on February 26, 1899, also in Vienna. Gustav Mahler conducted.
NJSO Premiere: 2003–04 season. Cornelius Eberhardt conducted.
Duration: 54 minutes

Only one mature chamber work, a String Quintet in F Major, stands out among the compositions of Anton Bruckner. His list of compositions consists primarily of massive orchestral pieces—the symphonies—and sacred choral works. To be sure, there are a few other miscellaneous compositions sprinkled among his oeuvre, for example some organ preludes, a few early solo piano works and a handful of songs. But aside from some youthful forays, the quintet, which dates from 1879, is unique.

That quintet played a key role in developing Bruckner’s command of string writing. His newly-enhanced skill flowered magnificently in his Sixth Symphony, which followed closely on the heels of the quintet. Bruckner began composing the A-major symphony in 1879, and worked on it for the better part of the next two years. The completed manuscript is dated September 3, 1881. Writer Ernst Decsey’s description of the quintet’s first movement is startlingly apt for the Sixth Symphony as well: “The first movement is one of those melodious Bruckner allegros which are not allegro in the accepted sense, but rather have the character of an animated slow movement, corresponding to the composer’s own inner rhythm. Other distinctive characteristics are Bruckner’s fondness for shifting harmonies, his charm of modulation and that broad sense of tonality possessed by Schubert.”

By the time he composed these two works, Bruckner had clearly developed a personal, recognizable style that emerged clearly and consistently in his music.

When he began work on the Sixth Symphony, Bruckner was still recovering from the psychological blow wrought by the disastrous failure of his Third Symphony in 1877. The String Quintet had provided a rite of passage toward re-establishing self-esteem. One measure of his restored confidence is the absence of revisions in the Sixth Symphony. This is the only symphony he did not revise extensively. He thought of it as his “cheekiest” symphony (“Die Sechste ist die keckste”) and remained justifiably proud of it. Buoyed by his sense of its worth, he began work on his Seventh Symphony less than three weeks after putting the final touches on the Sixth.

By Brucknerian standards, the Sixth Symphony is concise, clocking in at just under one hour. It opens with a quiet ostinato, a characteristic touch. Cellos and basses deliver the majestic main theme that gives the first movement its name, beneath the persistent rhythmic pattern that permeates the movement’s fabric. He vacillates between A major and A minor in the first theme group, and between E major and E minor in the second. That tonal ambiguity is intentional, and it links Bruckner to his early Romantic predecessor, Franz Schubert. A new emphasis on strings demonstrates how much he had learned writing the quintet. Throughout the opening movement, his music is both visceral and solemn, a cross between the pagan and the ecstatic.

Strings, especially cellos, are frequently in the foreground in the slow movement as well. This Adagio in F major is elegiac, even funereal in places. It is also the closest approximation to traditional sonata form in the symphony, if on a very large scale. The eminent British musicologist Donald Francis Tovey considered it to be characterized by “a high order of solemn beauty.” Listeners familiar with Schumann’s symphonies may hear a kinship to them in Bruckner’s approach to extended themes and dense orchestration.

Bruckner’s Scherzo is marked “nicht schnell” (“not fast”) and is indeed somewhat slower than his other scherzos. He lightens his orchestral touch, allowing for more chamber-like participation from individual instruments, such as the unmistakably Brucknerian trumpet theme. The trumpet theme is unmistakably Brucknerian, but closer in spirit to those that open his other symphonies, rather than those in third movements. His Trio features pizzicato strings in conversation with three horns and upper woodwinds.

The Symphony’s finale opens above tremolando violas and pizzicato lower strings. The violins’ melody in Phrygian mode initially sounds like A minor. Horns and trumpets herald the switch to major mode that defines the exultant mood of this movement. A series of adventuresome modulations carry Schubertian harmonic ideas a step further. At the close, Bruckner allows the trombones to restate the first movement theme, this time in unequivocal A major, for a radiant conclusion.

Gustav Mahler attended some of Bruckner’s lectures in Vienna, and he was present at the ill-fated performance of the Third Symphony that nearly derailed Bruckner’s composing career. Mahler was to play a significant role in championing Bruckner’s work; indeed, he conducted the first performance of the Sixth Symphony, albeit in a heavily cut version. The premiere took place in Vienna in 1899, unfortunately nearly two and one-half years after Bruckner had died. The composer only heard the two inner movements performed during his lifetime.

This glorious piece has historically been the least frequently performed of all Bruckner’s symphonies, a dark horse both in recordings and in the concert hall. Critics and music historians have been uniform in their praise and appreciation for the Sixth Symphony, however. Hans-Hubert Schönzeler calls it perhaps the most closely knit of them all; Erwin Doernberg writes that “it has a grandeur all its own, and belongs to those works which haunt one’s memory for weeks after a performance.” Donald Francis Tovey’s words, written more than a century ago, remain persuasive today: “If we clear our minds, not only of prejudice but of wrong points of view, and treat Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony as a kind of music we have never heard before, I have no doubt that its high quality will strike us at every moment.”

Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.