Concerto for Violin and Strings (Mendelssohn)
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The Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra in D minor was composed by Felix Mendelssohn at the age of thirteen. It has three movements, Allegro–Andante–Allegro, and performance duration is approximately 22 minutes. It has been widely recorded, and is alternately known as Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto No. 1 (with the renowned work in E minor alternately known as Violin Concerto No. 2).
Felix Mendelssohn, the prodigy
Mendelssohn was considered by many of his time to be a prodigy comparable only to the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Besides being a brilliant piano virtuoso, his composition took a firm step forward in musical development. In the period when this concerto was composed (from 1821 to 1823 while aged 12 to 14) Mendelssohn composed twelve string symphonies that have often been ignored. At the age of eleven, he had written these works: a trio for strings, a violin and piano sonata, two piano sonatas and the beginning of a third, three more for four hands, four for organ, three songs (lieder), and a cantata. The string symphonies were very much influenced by his acquaintance with Carl Maria von Weber, and in light of this his compositional output became of even greater quantity.
Mendelssohn wrote this violin concerto for Eduard Rietz (father of Julius Rietz), a beloved friend and teacher who would remain a lifetime partner, later serving as concertmaster for Mendelssohn's legendary performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's St Matthew Passion, which has been thought to have resurrected Bach in the public image.
When Mendelssohn died, his widow gave the manuscript of the long forgotten concerto to Ferdinand David, another close friend of Mendelssohn's and a leading violinist of the period, who in fact had premiered his beloved Violin Concerto in E minor. It was passed down through the Mendelssohn family, barely noticed for almost a century.
Menuhin resurrects the concerto
Yehudi Menuhin, the violin virtuoso and former prodigy himself, was first shown the manuscript of the concerto in the spring of 1951 in London by Albi Rosenthal, an amateur violinist and rare books dealer who had heard the prodigy Menuhin in his first concert in Munich.
He instantly found an interest in the concerto and bought the rights to it from members of the Mendelssohn family residing in Switzerland, which he held for the rest of his life. This was not the first time he resurrected a concerto, for as a teenager he had premiered the "lost" Robert Schumann Violin Concerto in the USA. Menuhin edited the concerto for performance and had it published by Peters Edition.
On 4 February 1952, Menuhin introduced the concerto to a Carnegie Hall audience with a "string Band", conducting the concerto from the violin. An orchestration of Giuseppe Tartini's "Devil's Trill Sonata" was also on the program. This was the first time Menuhin had directed an orchestra in New York.
Menuhin played the work often in recital, and made three recordings of it. The first was made immediately after the New York premiere, with him conducting the RCA Victor String Orchestra (his conducting debut on record), the second made the following year with Sir Adrian Boult and the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the last in 1971 with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.
The critics were pleased with the New York premiere. The New York Times admired its "lively jesting finale in the gypsy style", while the New York Sun called it "utterly delightful" and thanked Menuhin for bringing the manuscript to the world's attention. Menuhin himself loved the concerto and thought Mendelssohn was probably quite proud of it. He also found points of similarity with the later E minor Concerto. He said:
- "Both are in minor, in a somewhat tumultuous mood: The written out cadenzas, of the second and third movements; a long solo passage of short notes in the last movement reminiscent of the passage of the third of the E minor which ushers in the recapitulation...
- "The Concerto in D minor is full of invention and not in any way inhibited by too-strict traditional concepts. It exhibits, in fact, a remarkable freedom and elasticity of form. There is, for instance, a condensation and amplification with Schubertarian modulations of the exposition in the recapitulation for the first movement, and also a completely spontaneous treatment of the third."
Though some have attempted to bring the concerto into the standard violin repertory, as Menuhin did, it has yet to establish itself as a staple of the violin repertory in concert halls, as has the E minor Concerto. However, many recordings of this engaging work are available.
- Humphrey Burton. "Yehudi Menuhin - A Life". Northeastern University Press. 2000.
- Edition Peters. "Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D Minor". Edited by Yehudi Menuhin. 1952.