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8.554055 - MENDELSSOHN: Songs without Words (Selection)
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Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)
Songs without Words (Selections)

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.


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