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ClassicsOnline Home » MENDELSSOHN, Felix: Songs without Words, Vol. 1
BBC Music Magazine
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 - 1847)
Songs without Words
To contemporaries of Mendelssohn the
notion of songs without words seemed paradoxical. If there were no words, in
fact, there could be no song. Yet what Mendelssohn achieved was exactly what his
title suggested, music in its purest and simplest form, expressing its own
musical meaning, imbued with feeling, but without verbal connotation. At the
same time short piano pieces of this kind would always find a ready amateur
market and would be welcomed by publishers, although this may have been
irrelevant to the composer's purpose.
Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of Moses
Mendelssohn, the great Jewish thinker of the Enlightenment, was born in Hamburg
in 1809, the son of a prosperous banker. His family was influential in cultural
circles, and he and his sister were educated in an environment that encouraged
both musical and general cultural interests. At the same time the extensive
acquaintance of the Mendelssohns among artists and men of letters brought an
unusual breadth of mind, a stimulus to natural curiosity.
Much of Mendelssohn's childhood was
passed in Berlin, where his parents moved when he was three, to escape
Napoleonic invasion. There he took lessons from Goethe's much admired Zelter,
who introduced him to the old poet in Weimar. The choice of a career in music
was eventually decided on the advice of Cherubini, consulted by Abraham
Mendelssohn in Paris, where he was director of the Conservatoire. There
followed a period of further education, a Grand Tour of Europe that took him to
Italy and north to Scotland. His professional career began in earnest with his
appointment as general director of music in Düsseldorf in 1833.
Mendelssohn's subsequent career was
intense and brief. He settled in Leipzig as conductor of the Gewandhaus
concerts, and was instrumental in establishing the Conservatory there. Briefly
lured to Berlin by the King of Prussia and by the importunity of his family, he
spent an unsatisfactory year or so as director of the music section of the
Academy of Arts, providing music for a revival of classical drama under royal
encouragement. This appointment he was glad to relinquish in 1844, later
returning to his old position in Leipzig, where he died in 1847.
As a composer Mendelssohn possessed a
perfect technical command of the resources available to him and was always able
to write music that is felicitous, apt and often remarkably economical in the
way it achieves its effects. Mendelssohn had, like the rest of his family,
accepted Christian baptism, a ceremony Heine once described as a ticket of
admission into European culture. Nevertheless he encountered anti-Semitic
prejudice, as others were to, and false ideas put about in his own life-time
have left some trace in modern repetitions of accusations of superficiality for
which there is no real justification.
The series of Songs without Words
that Mendelssohn wrote and published from 1830 onwards serve as a very personal
musical diary in which the composer expressed very precisely musical ideas that
had, he alleged, no verbal equivalent. It was left to later publishers to
suggest titles for the pieces, a procedure that Mendelssohn himself deplored.
The present release opens with three Songs
without Words from Opus 53, written in 1839 and published in Bonn two years
later. Opus 53 No.2 is gently evocative, No.1 has suggested to some the
sea-shore, No.3 a much more agitated mood. Opus 53 No.4, which is also
included, is tinged with melancholy.
The second book of Songs without Words
was published in 1835, the year in which Mendelssohn took up his appointment as
conductor in Leipzig. The first piece, Opus 30 No.1, is meditative in mood,
No.2 is restless and No.3 bears the English title Consolation.
Mendelssohn published his first collection
of Songs without Words in London in 1830, but under the title Melodies
for the Pianoforte. The present recording includes the fifth of the set of
six, Opus 19 No.5, a stormy interlude.
From the third book of Songs without
Words, Opus 38, published in 1837, come the so-called Poet's Harp and
Hope, and from the fifth book, Opus 62, published in 1844, come two pieces
known as May Breezes and Departure. The sixth book, Opus 67, published
in 1845, is represented by five of the six pieces, given the titles Meditation,
Lost Illusions, Song of the Pilgrim, The Shepherd's Complaint
and Lullaby (Opus 67 Nos. 1,2,3,5 and 6 respectively).
Mendelssohn did not live to see the
publication of the seventh book of Songs without Words, Opus 85, which
was issued in Bonn in 1850. From it the present collection includes Nos.1,2
and4, Reverie, The Adieu and Elegy, while the eighth and final book, Opus 102,
published posthumously in 1868, is represented here by Nos. 3, 5 and 6, a
Tarantella, The Joyous Peasant and Faith.
Péter Nagy was born in Eastern Hungary in
1960 and is among the leading pianists of the younger generation in his native
country. He entered the Ferenc Liszt Academy in Budapest at the age of 15,
after winning various prizes at home and abroad, making his first professional
international appearances in Finland and in Yugoslavia in 1977, followed by
concerts at the Salzburg Interforum in 1978 in a duo with his compatriot Balazs
Szokolay. In the same year he toured the German Democratic Republic and the
Soviet Union and in 1979 made his début in France at the Menton Festival. There
followed concerts in West Germany, Switzerland, and the United States of
America, where he took further lessons from Gyorgy Sebok at Indiana University.
Nagy has played in Japan with various orchestras, was in 1987
Artist-in-Residence at the Canberra School of Music in Australia, and has taken
part in the festivals of Aix-en-Provence, Athens, Llandaff, Cardiff, Paris,
Bonn, Cologne, Geneva, Moscow and Leningrad. He is at present soloist with the
Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra and a member of the teaching staff of
the Liszt Academy in Budapest.
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MENDELSSOHN, Felix: Songs without Words, Vol. 1