About this Piece
Length: c. 28 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 2, 1920, with Sylvain Noack, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Among the less publicized facts about Felix Mendelssohn is that he, like Mozart, was a child-prodigy violinist as well as a child-prodigy pianist. Both would, however, choose the piano as their primary performing instrument.
Mendelssohn first showed his skills as a violinist by participating at age nine in musicales in the family's Berlin home. In his thirteenth year he wrote a concerto in D minor for violin and string orchestra - not for his own performance but for his teacher Eduard Rietz, older by only three years, later to become founder of the Berlin Philharmonic Society and concertmaster for Mendelssohn's epochal revival, in 1829, of the Bach St. Matthew Passion.
If the D-minor Concerto is the handiwork of precocious youth, betraying its indebtedness to earlier models, the canonic Mendelssohn Concerto, in E minor, is not only the creation of a mature master, but sui generis: brimming with lyric inspiration and structural inventiveness. The Concerto 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, "with an E-minor theme that keeps running through my head… " It 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.
The composer was particularly interested in David's opinions regarding the cadenza: not only whether it would be too difficult to play, but whether its unusual positioning would prove detrimental to the whole. 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 as it does 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. (At these performances, Joshua Bell plays his own cadenza.)
The E-minor Concerto was given its first performance by David in Leipzig in March of 1845. The conductor was the Danish composer Niels Gade, substituting for the ailing Mendelssohn.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.