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At-A-Glance

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Composed: 1844

About this Piece

Mendelssohn participated as early as the age of nine in musical performances in his family’s Berlin home and wrote a charming concerto for violin and string orchestra in his 13th year. That work, in D minor, was not written for his own performance, but rather for his – only slightly older – teacher, Eduard Rietz, later to become a founder of the Berlin Philharmonic Society and concertmaster for Mendelssohn’s epochal 1829 revival of the Bach St. Matthew Passion.

If the D-minor Concerto is the handiwork of precocious youth, betraying its indebtedness to earlier models, the present work, the Concerto in E minor, is not only the creation of a mature master, but also sui generis: brimming with lyric inspiration and structural inventiveness. It was written for another violinist-friend of the composer, Ferdinand David, whom Mendelssohn had appointed his concertmaster when he became conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835.

“I would like to write a concerto for you,” Mendelssohn wrote to David in 1838, “one with an E-minor theme that keeps running through my head, preventing me from thinking about anything else.” The work was begun shortly thereafter, but completion was delayed by other projects and by Mendelssohn’s frequent bouts of ill-health. He never abandoned the score for long, however, and at intervals showed sketches to David, soliciting practical advice from its eventual dedicatee every step of the way.

The composer was particularly interested in David’s opinion regarding the cadenza: not only whether it would be too difficult to play, but also whether its unusual positioning would prove detrimental to the whole. The cadenza, as it turns out, is the work’s pivotal episode and one of the composer’s great inspirations – one that would separate it from past concertos and set a course for composers of the future.

In earlier concertos, the cadenza constituted an often unwelcome break in continuity at the end of the first movement, the orchestra banished to allow the soloist opportunity for – more often than not, mindless – solo display. In his two earlier major concertos, for piano, Mendelssohn omitted cadenzas altogether, solving the problem by avoiding it.

Here, instead of placing the cadenza at the end of the first movement, Mendelssohn introduces it just beyond midpoint, allowing it to serve an integral function, growing out of the development and enriching everything to come in a score that is seamless, literally and figuratively: the three movements are not only played without a break, but might be regarded as variations on a single, evolving thought.

— Herbert Glass