The Music of Mendelssohn: Five Favorites

In today’s video, we’ll be looking at the music of Mendelssohn. I’ve chosen five selections that should give you a good taste of his range and style.

We’ll start by talking a little about Mendelssohn’s style, and then jump right into the five different compositions, talking about each, and – as always – listening to some samples.

Let’s get to it!

Mendelssohn’s style

Schubert considered Mendelssohn the “Mozart of the nineteenth century” and went on to call him the most brilliant musician, and “the one who most clearly sees through the contradictions of the age and for the first time reconciles them.”

Mendelssohn’s main interest was to pay homage to the masters who came before him. His music explores this interest with great technical mastery, but he wasn’t interested in creating new styles or genres. This makes him very different from rule-breakers like Wagner and Liszt. Berlioz, another Romantic rule-breaker, said that Mendelssohn had “perhaps studies the music of the dead too closely.”

One difference between Classical sonata form, and how the Romantics modified sonata form, is where the climax of the movement is. In Classical form, the development section (middle section) is the climax. But in the Romantic era, the preference was to make the musical climax at the end of the movement. In his music, Mendelssohn often varied the recapitulation (final section) so that it wasn’t a direct copy of the exposition (first section), which allowed for an end-of-movement climax.

Mendelssohn had a short career (he didn’t even make it to 40 years old), and wrote amazing, masterful music at a young age.

We’re going to take a listen to five different compositions by Mendelssohn, so you can start getting a sense of his musical style.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, op. 61

Early in his career, Mendelssohn wrote an overture to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Later, in 1842 he wrote the incidental music for the play. It was originally commissioned by King Frederick William IV of Prussia, who was impressed with Mendelssohn’s incidental music to Antigone.

The Wedding March is possibly the most famous single piece by Mendelssohn, and we’ll take a listen to it in a moment. It’s the intermezzo between acts IV and V. It’s purely instrumental, scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, three trumpets, three trumbones, ophicleide (AH-fuh-kleide), timpani, cymbals and strings.

Let’s have a listen!

Video credits:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61 – Wedding March

European Archive

Copyright: P.D. 1.0

Songs without Words, op. 30

Mendelsson’s Songs without Words, in eight volumes with six compositions each, are his most famous piano pieces.  They were composed between 1829-1845. Part of the reason they’re so well-known is that mere mortals can play them – some of the easiest pieces are playable by a late-intermediate student.

German musicologist Karl Schumann described these as “a household possessions, as widespread in Germany as the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales.”

We’re going to listen to a piece from the second book, op. 30. It’s in F# minor, has a dark sound and a three-note rocking pattern. The theme is often descending, lending to the darkness in this piece – even though there are hopeful pockets where the music rises and increases in volume. It’s about three minutes long and is a beautiful piece of piano music.

Video credits

Songs Without Words – No.6 in F Sharp Minor, Op.30

European Archive

Copyright: P.D. 1.0

Symphony no. 3, “Scottish Symphony”, op. 56

Mendelssohn wrote five symphonies – we’ll have a listen to the third in A minor, dubbed the “Scottish” symphony, which premiered in 1842 but was started in 1829.

Mendelssohn first visited Britain in 1829, which was the inspiration for this symphony. He went on a walking tour of Scotland with a friend, including the ruins of Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh. He wrote about it to a family member:

“In the deep twilight we went today to the palace were Queen Mary lived and loved…The chapel below is now roofless. Grass and ivy thrive there and at the broken altar where Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything is ruined, decayed, and the clear heavens pour in. I think I have found there the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.”

After a couple years he put the symphony aside, since he wasn’t making progress. He picked it up again in earnest a decade later, in 1841, and completed it in 1842. It was actually the last symphony he completed, but it was the third to be published. And aside from the symphony’s initial inspiration in Scotland, Mendelssohn never ended up calling attention to it again – so we don’t know if he still intended it to be “Scottish”.

This symphony is in four movements, of which we’ll listen to the fourth. It’s in sonata form and takes inspiration from a Scottish folk dance. There’s a coda at the end of the movement that moves from A minor to A major, which feels celebratory. The work as a whole is worth listening to (I always say that, of course), but let’s take a listen to the beginning of the final movement.

Video credits

Symphony no. 3 ‘Scottish’, Op. 56 – IV. Allegro vivacissimo

Musopen Symphony

Copyright: P.D. 1.0

Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor, op. 25

Mendelssohn wrote a few piano concertos. The one we’ll look at today, no. 1, was written in 1830-31, around the same time as his fourth (“Italian”) symphony. It was composed during his Italian travels.

The first movement, Molto allegro con fuoco, has a very short tutti section before getting into the piano action. There were also a lot of improvisational sections, which was a specialty of Mendelssohn’s. The version we’re going to listen to is actually arranged for piano duet – let’s have a listen.

Video credits

Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 – I. Molto allegro con fuoco (2 pianos arr.)

Allen Wang

Copyright: P.D. 1.0

String Quartet no. 6 in F minor, op. 80

Finally, we’ll look at his String Quartet no. 6 in F minor, which was his last major work composed in his lifetime, in 1847. It was written after his sister Fanny died, who was also an immensely talented musician. The historian Peter Mercer-Taylor considers this work “exceptionally powerful and eloquent”.

Let’s have a listen to the intense opening, Allegro vivace assai.

Video credits

String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80 – I. Allegro vivace assai

Musopen String Quartet

Copyright: P.D. 1.0

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this tour through some of Mendelssohn’s music. I highly encourage you to check out the full versions instead of just these snippets – he’s not as well-known as other Romantic giants like Chopin or Liszt, but his music is an important staple in early Romantic repertoire.

Until next time,

-Allysia

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