About this Recording
8.550316 - MENDELSSOHN, Felix: Songs without Words, Vol. 1

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
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.

Close the window