Tuesday 20 August 2019

Felix the great:Mendelsshon's silver spoon and dazzling talent

Felix Mendelssohn had it all - the silver spoon, the glistening talent, the entrée that led to him giving piano lessons to Prince Albert, the husband of Britain's Queen Victoria. And a legacy that includes some of the most popular music of all.

Aren't artists supposed to struggle? Not this guy. Mind you, he could have followed his father into the family bank, and we'd never have heard of him.

But he was prodigiously gifted. He could paint, he wrote poetry. He loved Shakespeare. A small, wiry individual, he was an accomplished horseman and swimmer. And he was a musician.

Felix was playing and composing from an early age in Germany. He had an older sister called Fanny, and the pair of them loved Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

He was still only a teenager when he wrote his overture to the play, and the piece helped make his name.

That came a year after his remarkable Octet - essentially two string quartets melded together to bring new depth to the intimacy of chamber music. It was a stand-out piece, and hindsight confirms what an innovator he was.

It would be a while before he'd accept that this was his world, and his future lay there, but once he did, that world became his oyster. He travelled all over Europe, his experiences prompting a flood of composition.

He went to Scotland where Holyrood Palace, and the tragic tale of Mary Stuart - Mary, Queen of Scots - inspired his Third Symphony. A storm-tossed boat trip to the Western Isles was commemorated in Fingal's Cave, his Hebrides Overture.

Then he journeyed south. The exuberant Fourth Symphony - known as the Italian - burst forth back in Berlin after a summer spent under clear blue Mediterranean skies.

He's also responsible for what could be said to be the most popular Romantic concerto of them all. - his Violin Concerto in E minor.

It was another groundbreaking masterpiece. No introductions necessary, the piece explodes into life with the violin taking centre-stage right from the off.

It delivers vitality, then a slow second movement that is the essence of emotional simplicity, before scuttling and darting between fiddle and woodwind, rushing to a sparkling conclusion.

Around the same time - 1844 - Mendelssohn was putting together a complete suite to accompany A Midsummer Night's Dream on stage.

He expanded and embellished the themes he'd employed in his overture all those years ago as a teenager.

That was enough to encourage some critics to dismiss Mendelssohn as a man who'd never matured, never developed, a man who - as he approached middle age - was still drawing from his teenage inspirations.

I've another view. Mendelssohn was born lucky, and what you saw was what you got.

There was no need for a turbulent life's struggle to get him to perfection. He was one of the few who delivered right from the start. We're the lucky ones, to have him on our playlist.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ Lyric FM from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

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