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Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 - 1847)


Incidental Music "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Op.21
1. Scherzo
2. Nocturne
3. Wedding March

Like Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn was a highly gifted prodigy. Born in Hamburg, he made his debut as a pianist in Berlin aged nine. At 16, he took the musical world by storm with his String Octet and overture to A Midsummer Nights Dream. He made many visits to Britain, becoming a favourite of the young Queen Victoria.

It is often said that he "found fame too easily", and that his later music fails to recapture the joyous zest of his teenage works. Even if this is true for some of his later works, it is definitely not true of the incidental music to A Midsummer Nights Dream. The overture had been written in 1826, but the rest of the music was written in 1843, when he was 34, famous and well-established. It was commissioned by the King of Prussia for a performance of Shakespeare's play in Potsdam, just outside Berlin, where it was first performed on October 14th, 1843.

The music brilliantly recaptures the spirit of the overture and Shakespeare's play, being intelligent, subtle and witty. The scherzo is a light, filigree veil, through which the gentle braying of the donkey can occasionally be heard. The nocturne, with its lovely writing for horns, conjures up the warm magic air of the lovers in the woods by night, while the famous Wedding March, so rarely heard in its original form, celebrates the pleasingly fantastic happy outcome of the tale.

Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
I. Allegro molto appassionato
II. Andante
III. Allegretto non troppo - allegro molto vivace

Mendelssohn was only 16 when, in 1825, he first met the violinist Ferdinand David, one year his junior. They remained friends all Mendelssohn's life and when, ten years later, he was appointed director of the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig, Mendelssohn arranged for his friend to be engaged as leader of the orchestra. Quite soon, David asked Mendelssohn to write him a violin concerto. Normally a very rapid and fluent composer, it took Mendelssohn a surprisingly long time to complete the commission. In 1839 he wrote "It is nice of you to press me for a violin concerto! I have the liveliest desire to write one for you and, if I have a few propitious days, I'll bring you something. But the task is not an easy one." It clearly was not easy, for a full five years passed before the concerto was ready, and the first performance took place in Leipzig in 1845. Ferdinand David played the solo part, but Mendelssohn was ill and unable to conduct, so the concert was directed by a mutual friend, the Danish composer Neils Gade.

Many features of the concerto are unusual for its day. Instead of a long orchestral preamble presenting the main themes, the soloist comes in immediately with the passionate melody on which the first movement is built. The second theme, appearing much later on flutes and clarinets, is gently melancholic. The positioning of the cadenza is unconventional too, coming before the recapitulation of the opening material rather than at the end of the movement.

The slow movement follows without a break, linked to the preceding allegro by a held bassoon note - another innovation in this concerto, intended to discourage the audience from applauding between movements. It is a simple and lovely "song without words", with a more agitated central section.

The finale, which also should follow without a break, is preceded by a short introduction. The main theme is a delicate dancing tune, whose mood is light, like his music for Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. A more flowing melody appears is later, and is then combined with the dancing theme to great effect But the lasting impression is one of exuberant drive and joy.

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