Friday, September 23, 2016

When Felix Met Ferdinand: How Friendship Produced a Masterpiece for the Violin

Written by Erik Leveille, First Violin for
the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra
“I should like to write a violin concerto for you next winter. One in E minor runs in my head, the beginning of which gives me no peace.” Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘earworm’, as described in a letter from July 1838 to his good friend, violinist Ferdinand David, would become one of the most beloved and instantly recognizable melodies in the violin concerto literature.

Travel now further back in time to Berlin, 1825: 15 year old violin prodigy Ferdinand David, after two years of study with the renowned violinist and composer Louis Spohr, is on his first concert tour. There he encounters the equally precocious pianist and composer, 16 year old Felix Mendelssohn, who had that very year completed his Octet for strings, a masterwork of such assurance and maturity that even Mozart himself had not achieved at that age. 

Both boys hailed from Hamburg, where their families were acquainted with each other- Ferdinand was even born in the very house where Felix had been born the previous year. Their meeting in Berlin resulted in a fast friendship- a year later, when the Mendelssohns had settled in Berlin, Felix wrote to Ferdinand that “it is of the utmost importance for your future career that you should soon come to Berlin…Would to God that I might soon have the pleasure of seeing you settled here, for I am convinced that nothing could be better for you than life and work in Berlin”. After first securing a job in a Berlin theater orchestra, David took the advice to heart. Ferdinand was thereafter often a guest in the Mendelssohn home, where the two would play string quartets together(Felix on viola) with David's orchestra colleagues.

When Mendelssohn was appointed director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig(still going strong to this day!), he invited David to be his concertmaster; they worked hand in hand to produce one of the finest ensembles of the day. He similarly appointed his friend as violin professor when he founded the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843(David would become one of the most important teachers of the 19th century- his greatest student, Joseph Joachim, would go on to collaborate with Johannes Brahms in producing his violin concerto). Both men shared a seriousness of mind and reverence for music of the past (Mendelssohn gave the first 19th century performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and David produced the first performing edition of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, and was the first to publicly perform Bach’s Chaconne) that contrasted with the dazzling pyrotechnics of flamboyant virtuosos in the mold of Paganini, which Mendelssohn dismissed as “juggler’s tricks”. David’s love of music of the Baroque is still with us today- many of the sonatas that he selected for his “High School of Violin Playing” comprise much of the later volumes of the Suzuki Violin School, in versions scarcely altered from David’s originals and performed by violin students worldwide.

We are honored to perform Mendelssohn with
the legendary Itzhak Perlman on
September 28, 2016 at the Fox Cities P.A.C.
Other commitments prevented Mendelssohn from finally working out his E minor earworm until 1844. Felix relied on his colleague not only for technical advice on the solo part(David was in large part responsible for the great cadenza at the heart of the first movement which was among the first to be written out instead of improvised by the soloist) but even details of the orchestration. In their correspondence, Mendelssohn is eager to please his friend and even self-deprecating; in a letter fired off before the manuscript went to the publishers he requests some last minute alterations and exclaims “Thank God the fellow is through with his concerto! you will say. Excuse my bothering you, but what can I do?”

The long gestation and close collaboration paid off; the premiere in March 1845 was a tremendous success, though sadly Mendelssohn was ill and unable to conduct. When further ill health tragically ended Mendelssohn’s life two years later at the age of 38, Ferdinand David was among the small circle of family and friends who attended his bedside. David continued to champion his friend’s concerto and taught it to his pupils. Through his advocacy Mendelssohn's masterpiece quickly took its place of honor as one of the greatest works for the violin. 

We in the present day still respond to the concerto’s blend of passionate lyricism, intimacy, and puckish high spirits. The musicians of the Fox Valley Symphony look forward to accompanying the great Itzhak Perlman in this masterpiece born out of friendship! 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting my little scribblings, Jamie! Erik

    ReplyDelete