Felix Mendelssohn

Tchaikovsky Research
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Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), in an 1833 portrait by Eduard Magnus

German composer (b. 3 February 1809 [N.S.] in Hamburg; d. 4 November 1847 [N.S.] in Leipzig), born Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn; also known as Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn

In contrast to the critical attitude towards Mendelssohn as a 'saccharine' and 'shallow' composer which was widespread in German and Russian musical circles in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Tchaikovsky greatly appreciated Mendelssohn's music and in his feuilleton articles of the 1870s often stood up for him against his detractors [1]. One of his favourite works by Mendelssohn seems to have been the Italian Symphony, which, together with Schumann's symphonies and the cantata Das Paradies und die Peri, Tchaikovsky would frequently play through on the piano at the Davydovs' dacha near Peterhof where he was staying in the summer of 1866 [2]. In later years he would also play Mendelssohn's concert overtures [3].

Somewhat oddly perhaps, Tchaikovsky does not mention the "Italian Symphony" in his music review articles (nor does he discuss Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, which he heard Stanisław Barcewicz play at a Russian Musical Society concert in Moscow on 25 January/6 February 1875), but he does lavish great praise on the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, which he held to be Mendelssohn's finest work, and to a lesser extent on the "Scottish Symphony" (see below). In Tchaikovsky's view, Mendelssohn, just like Schumann, had clearly left his mark on the next generation of German composers, and, although he often criticized the younger epigones from the "school of Schumann and Mendelssohn", this did not in any way diminish his admiration for the music of these two so different masters. (Admittedly, as he saw it, Schumann's talent "by far surpassed that of Mendelssohn in depth and vigour" — see TH 268). Tchaikovsky shared this admiration with Nadezhda von Meck, who mentions Mendelssohn in some of her letters to the composer.

During his first conducting tour to Western Europe, it is also interesting that Tchaikovsky attended a special concert organized by Adolph Brodsky at the Leipzig Conservatoire on 1 February 1888 [N.S.] to raise funds for a monument to Mendelssohn in the city where he had played such an important role in German musical life [4]. (This monument was finally erected in 1892 and has recently been restored again after it was removed in 1936.)

General Reflections on Mendelssohn

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • TH 268 — Tchaikovsky defends Mendelssohn from his many detractors in both Germany and Russia, emphasizing the "graceful roundedness of form" and "fluency" of his works. Although he points out that some of his music might come across as "sickly-sweet" and that it was of course less profound than Beethoven's, Tchaikovsky nevertheless insists that Mendelssohn would always remain "a paragon of faultless stylistic purity" and that his attractive qualities had shown themselves to best advantage in the music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, "his finest work" as Tchaikovsky saw it.
  • TH 270 — lists Mendelssohn alongside Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and Glinka, as examples of the type of "hard-working artist" who concentrated on his music rather than seeking attention by setting himself up as the champion of some 'progressive' theory or cause (as Wagner had done); in a discussion of the Scottish Symphony, Tchaikovsky notes again Mendelssohn's splendid qualities (formal perfection, the beauty of his harmony and instrumentation) as well as his faults ("lack of depth", "sugary melodies"); refers ironically to Wagner's anti-Semitic attacks against Mendelssohn.
  • TH 283 — again describes enthusiastically the music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, calling it Mendelssohn's "first and finest work", as it was "so original, inspired, and poetic".
  • TH 311 — while listening to excerpts from the unfinished opera Die Loreley, Tchaikovsky admits that he had almost burst into tears at the thought of Mendelssohn's "cruel and untimely" death, as there was so much that he could still have achieved.

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

  • Letter 805 to Nadezhda von Meck, 1/13 April 1878, in which Tchaikovsky comments on his veneration of Mozart, which he admits might at first glance seem so strange given that they were so different in temperament:

Generally speaking, it seems to me that in an artist's soul his creative faculty is quite independent of his sympathies for this or that master. For example, one can love Beethoven but still be closer to Mendelssohn by nature.

  • Letter 1541 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 18/30 July 1880, in which Tchaikovsky outlines again the article that he had thought out in his mind regarding the significance of Carmen in this modern age when composers were chasing after "novel" and "spicy" effects (see the entry on Bizet):

…. The last Mohicans of the Golden Age of music were Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, and Glinka

  • Letter 1617 to Nadezhda von Meck, 24 October/5 November 1880–27 October/8 November 1880, in which Tchaikovsky explains why he would never write a piano trio — because, as he put it, he just could not stand the combination of piano with violin or cello solo:

… I give full credit to the artistry and great skill shown by such composers as Beethoven, Schumann, and Mendelssohn in overcoming these difficulties. I know that there are many trios with music of splendid quality, but the trio is a form I do not like, and that is why I cannot write anything inspired by genuine feeling for this sound combination [5].

Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann wrote their immortal works just as a shoemaker sews his boots, that is day after day, and, in most cases, to order. As a result what they produced was something colossal…

Views on Specific Works by Mendelssohn

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • A Midsummer Night's Dream, incidental music for Shakespeare's play, Op. 61 (1842) — TH 268, TH 283
  • Die Loreley, opera (unfinished; begun in 1847) — TH 311
  • Psalm 98 "Singet dem Herrn", cantata, Op. 91 (1843) — TH 271
  • Sextet in D major, for piano and strings (1824) — TH 283
  • String Quartet No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 12 (1829) — TH 268
  • Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 52 (1840), "Lobgesang" — TH 295
  • Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 (1842), "Scottish" — TH 270

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

  • Symphony No. 5 in D major, Op. 107 (1832, "Reformation") — Letter 1124 to his brother Modest, 26 February/10 March 1879, in which Tchaikovsky describes how nervous he had been during the concert in the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 9 March 1879 [N.S.] at which Édouard Colonne had conducted a performance of The Tempest after Mendelssohn's symphony: "I was agitated not at all because I was afraid it would be a flop, but because for some time now listening again to any of my works has always caused me to feel strongly disappointed about myself. Now it just so happened that before The Tempest they played Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony, and, in spite of my frightful agitation, I was marvelling all the time at his wondrous mastery. I lack mastery…"

In Tchaikovsky's Diaries

  • Elijah, oratorio, Op. 70 (1846) — diary entry in New York, 6 May 1891 [N.S.]: "Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah was performed. A wonderful, but somewhat long-winded piece" [6].

External Links

Notes and References

  1. See also Dieter Lehmann, Čajkovsijs Ansichten über deutsche Komponisten (1995), p. 212.
  2. Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 229.
  3. See diary entry for 28 March/9 April 1887 in Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 135.
  4. See Letter 3478 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 20 January/1 February 1888.
  5. A year later Tchaikovsky would nevertheless compose his own Piano Trio in memory of Nikolay Rubinstein.
  6. Diary entry for 24 April/6 May 1891. See Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 274. Tchaikovsky heard Mendelssohn's oratorio at a concert in the newly inaugurated Music Hall in New York, which was the main stop of his American tour.