Wednesday 28 September 2016

Classical: Mendelssohn - the Romantic who brought back Bach

George Hamilton

Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30

Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn

Like the broad branches of a stout family tree, the story of the evolution of classical music takes in all manner of rich diversity. Felix Mendelssohn, whose family owned a bank, may well be an unlikely occupant of the pantheon of great composers, but he got there by virtue of a number of historical happenstances.

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There was no great financial imperative for him to make music, which may very well be why his output features some of the sunniest sounds around. Take the opening bars of his Italian Symphony (No 4 in the bright key of A), guaranteed to lift the spirits. The mood persists all the way through.

Quite apart from his family circumstances - he had the funding to go off on a grand tour of Europe and find his inspiration from the shores of the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean - he's a source of some fascination, for Mendelssohn is one of those who truly spans the styles.

Mozart was a big influence, and so too was Bach. From two distinct eras - the Classical and the Baroque - and so different in style, they were like godparents to Mendelssohn's music. Robert Schumann reckoned Mendelssohn was the Mozart of the 19th century. Franz Liszt considered him Bach reborn.

The formal structure, the tight control, the counterpoint of the earlier period, on top of all this, the magical melodies - these were the elements that created the Mendelssohn style.

So part Classical, with a dash of Baroque, but he was still unquestionably Romantic in his approach, infusing his music with spirit and passion.

The Italian Symphony, already mentioned, is one clear example; another would be the suite of music to go with Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream. The sprightly Scherzo from it paints a terrific picture in sound - you can just see the elves dancing through the woods in your mind's eye.

Another Mendelssohn masterpiece is his Hebrides overture - Fingal's Cave. Music much darker than the symphony, inspired as it was by a rough ride out to the islands.

Then there's his Violin Concerto - probably the most popular Romantic concerto of them all. Quintessentially of the era, it speaks through the counterpoint of solo instrument and orchestra, a musical conversation across three movements that inspires through its soaring melodies.

It was premièred in 1845, just two years before his death at the age of 38, very much a composition of its age.

Mendelssohn, with his silver spoon, may not have been typical of the type drawn to artistic expression, but he personified what was happening in music at the time - the move away from patronage and into public performance.

It wasn't just his own compositions he presented either.

It may be hard to credit now, but the music of Bach was off the agenda, forgotten, neglected, when Mendelssohn made it his mission to reintroduce the public to the masterpieces from the past.

Bach's St Matthew Passion hadn't been heard since the composer's lifetime a hundred years before.

Mendelssohn's 1829 production in Leipzig was responsible, more or less on its own, for the revival of interest in the great Baroque genius that has kept him at the forefront of musical appreciation ever since.

As an introduction to the work of a man who bridges the gap between the Classical and the Romantic, the American label Summit Records has a splendid compilation available (DCD180) featuring Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony, his Violin Concerto, and the 'Scherzo' from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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