About this Recording
8.550453 - MENDELSSOHN: Songs without Words, Vol. 2

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 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 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 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 piece.

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 Words was published as Op. 102 in 1868. The first has the publisher's title Homeless and the second Retrospection. The fourth has the superscription The Sighing Wind. The present recorded collection also includes another Song without Words, a Horseman's Song, written in 1844, but not included in the original published collections.

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 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.

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