ClassicsOnline Home » MENDELSSOHN: Songs without Words, Vol. 2
"a refreshingly straight-forward and unsentimental approach"
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 south to ltaly 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
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 Op. 19 collection of Songs without Words was the first to be
published, originally under the title Melodies
for the Pianoforte. Five of these are included in the present
collection, starting with the first, a gently evocative little piece, followed
by the third, a Hunting-Song, and the second, which some publishers have
entitled Regrets. Op. 19 No.4 is
sometimes known as Confidence and
No.6, more probably, as a Venetian Gondolier's Song.
The second set of half a dozen Songs
without Words appeared in Bonn in 1835. Here included are the
fourth, fifth and sixth, the exciting first of these known to publishers as The Wanderer, the flowing second of the
group as The Brook and the last a
second Venetian Gondolier's Song.
From the third set come Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 6. These, published in 1837 as Op. 38, open with The Evening Star and Lost Happiness and
end with Passion and a romantic Duet. Whatever the composer's view of the
titles, they do at least suggest a possible interpretation of the mood of each
Songs without Words of
Op. 53 were published in 1841.
Two of these, Nos. 5 and 6 are included, the first a Folk Song and the second bearing the less probable
publisher's title The Flight. The
collection was followed in 1844 by a fifth set, Op. 62. Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6 start with a Funeral March, played in an orchestrated
version by Moscheles at Mendelssohn's own funeral. No.4 is a Morning Song, No.5 a Venetian Gondolier's Song and No.6 one of
the best known of all, Spring Song.
The most popular piece in the sixth set, Op. 67, published in 1845, is the fourth, the Spinning Song or Bees' Wedding. The seventh series,
published posthumously in 1850 as Op. 85,
is here represented by Nos. 3, 5 and 6, a wild Delirium,
The Return and the 1841 Song of the Traveller.
The final volume of Songs without
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 Balázs 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.