String Symphony No. 10
Length: 11 minutes
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: Sept. 2, 1975, Pinchas Zukerman conducting
Although Mendelssohn's music figures into this program only briefly (if precociously, as we will see), his spirit pervades it. Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809; the eldest male child in a prosperous family. His father was a banker and his grandfather a highly regarded scholar and philosopher. His mother, musically and artistically sophisticated, introduced the children of this multi-lingual family to the piano. When Felix's musical gifts were recognized, his tuition was taken over by the eminent composer and teacher Carl Zelter.
Even considering these fertile beginnings, it is unnerving to assess the young Mendelssohn's achievements; he was the ultimate prodigy. The quality of his output before leaving his teens shows a greater sophistication than that of Mozart at a comparable age. Some of the pieces we most immediately associate with Mendelssohn's name came from this period: the Octet for Strings from his 16th year, the overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream from his 17th. And both of these more than five years after his first public piano recital.
Mendelssohn's early instruction from Zelter inspired a reverence for his musical predecessors. His recent models were Mozart and Haydn (who died in the year of Felix's birth), but his studies were equally devoted to the "unfashionable" music of a still more remote era. In 1829, the 20-year-old Mendelssohn lead a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in Berlin, the first significant presentation of the work in nearly 40 years and the beginning of a wide revival of interest in the senior Bach's music. The music of Bach's sons had eclipsed the popularity of their father's in the intervening generations.
Mendelssohn would first meet Robert Schumann in 1835; they were to be life-long colleagues and friends. Within a few years, Schumann, writing in letters, would describe Mendelssohn as "a god among men" and would go on to say:
Mendelssohn I consider to be the first musician of the day; I doff my hat to him as my superior. He plays with everything, especially with the grouping of instruments in the orchestra, but with such ease, delicacy, and art, with such mastery throughout.
After Schumann discovered a lost symphony among the papers of the deceased Franz Schubert, it was Mendelssohn who edited a working score and conducted in 1839 the premiere performance of what we now know to be Schubert's Ninth Symphony, the "Great" C major. Mendelssohn's career as performing musician, composer, and teacher, was the influential bridge, the passage between the great ages of the Baroque and the Classical periods into the Romantic era.
The work on this program, Mendelssohn's String Symphony No. 10 in B minor, precedes the years of the composer's greatest fame. It was completed in May of 1823 by a boy of 14. Only one movement has survived, and it is uncertain whether the symphony was conceived as a single- or a multi-movement work. Felix was studying with Zelter during its composition and the teacher's conservative musical leanings are reflected in the choice of form and style; the string symphonies of Carl Phillipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), second eldest son of Johann Sebastian, clearly were an inspiration, and the slow introduction is reminiscent of Haydn. The dramatic dash that follows, however, is pure Mendelssohn.
- Annotator Grant Hiroshima is the executive director of a private foundation and the former director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.