About Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto

by Petra Turnbull
Felix Mendelssohn wrote one of the most famous violin concertos.

Felix Mendelssohn wrote one of the most famous violin concertos.

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German composer Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 was premiered in 1845 while the composer was the conductor for an orchestra in the city of Leipzig. It has been very successful ever since its premiere, and is a much talked-about masterpiece from the Romantic period.

Felix Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn was born in 1809; unlike many musicians of his time he was spared a troubled, poor or exploited upbringing even though he was widely regarded as a child prodigy. He played the piano since the age of 6, and composed and performed his first scores before he was 10. At 13 he published his first work, and he became a celebrated conductor in 1829 at the age of 20. Mendelssohn traveled extensively, especially to England and Scotland where he gave concerts and supported local composers. He died after a series of strokes, aged only 38, in 1847.

History of the Violin Concerto

Mendelssohn had a longstanding friendship with the German violinist Ferdinand David; he started talking about a violin concerto for his friend in 1838. He frequently discussed it with David, who advised him on the score and regularly consulted Mendelssohn from the soloists point of view. The concerto was finished in 1845 and premiered in Leipzig with Ferdinand David as soloist. Mendelssohn was unable to conduct the premiere himself due to illness, but performed the work later the same year in a second concert, again with David as soloist.

The Score

Besides the solo violin, the score for the concerto was written for an orchestra of 2 clarinets, 2 oboes, 2 flutes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets and strings. The work has three movements: Allegro molto appassionato, Andante and Allegretto non troppo/Allegro molto vivace. The concerto is unusual in that it focuses mostly on the solo performance, even allowing the violinist to open the piece -- a task usually left to the orchestra. It has become one of the major concertos in the violin repertoire, and is often the first solo concerto performed by aspiring violin soloists. The music combines classical elements with the romantic lyricism of Mendelssohn's era and the composer's own sense of elegance.

The Violin

The violin used by Ferdinand David in the first performance in 1845, a David Guarneri built in 1742, is owned today by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. The violin was bequeathed to the museum in 1987 following the death of world-renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz, its last private owner. Valued at six million dollars, the instrument has been on loan to concertmaster Alexander Barantschik of the San Francisco Symphony since 2001.

About the Author

Based in the U.K., Petra Turnbull has been working as a journalist since 1989. Her articles on the film and book trades have been published in "Screen International," "Dagens Naringsliv," "Film Magasinet" and other Scandinavian newspapers and magazines. She now manages her own book shop. Turnbull holds degrees in law and economics from Goethe University, Germany and Oslo Business School in Norway.

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