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Bravo III-A: Mendelssohn and Beethoven Saturday March 6 2021 at 7:30 PM

Thalia Mara Hall
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MENDELSSOHN: String Sinfonia No. 7 in D minor

Mendelssohn was one of history’s great musical prodigies, even if over-shadowed in most people’s minds by Mozart. Born into a comfortable life (his father was one of Germany’s leading bankers and his grandfather Moses a famous Jewish thinker and philosopher), Felix started his musical studies in the shadow of his talented older sister Fanny. Between the ages of 11 and 14 he composed well over a hundred works: piano music, songs, operas, sacred choral works, concertos, and symphonies. From an early age, Mendelssohn was fascinated by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the possibilities of polyphony (music featuring multiple independent lines of melody). His teacher, the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, drilled him in Baroque counterpoint, along with traditional study of classical style scores by Haydn, Mozart, and the two sons of J.S. Bach, Carl Philip Emanuel and Johann Christian, whose influences can be heard in his early music. During his time with Zelter, Felix composed thirteen string symphonies (“Sinfonias”), all between the ages of 12 and 15. Sinfonia No. 7 was probably composed around the time he was 12 or 13, but it sounds like the music of one far past his chronological age. It is balanced, witty, and always pleasing. Above all, his music is always marked by his gift for graceful melodic writing, and unlike Beethoven’s, rarely pushes boundaries or limits.

The Allegro opening is startling—strings in a quick unison flourish, answered by graceful intertwining lines, and an ensuing dialog of contrasts, with carefully balanced rhythmic interjections. The second movement (Andante) shows that Mendelssohn’s gift for melody appeared early on. The third movement Menuetto features interesting rhythmic interplay and although it’s the obligatory “dance” movement, is full of clever counterpoint (the “academic” combined with the “physical”), especially in the Trio (“B”) section. The Rondo Finale begins with a surprising, slashing unison note, then scurrying energy that seems to foreshadow (just a bit) Mendelssohn’s famously light string writing in the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. But this is interrupted by a dry and proper little fugue, which before long dissolves into a delightful, bouncing contrapuntal romp, combining homophonic chords, more unison, and polyphonic texture, arriving at a happy, thoroughly satisfying ending.

BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 11, in F minor, Op. 95 “Serioso” [Arranged for orchestra by Gustav Mahler]

If composing for Mendelssohn seemed to come easy, for Beethoven it was a different story. Even given their wildly different life circumstances (Beethoven’s struggle to make a living, his eternal health problems, and his impending and final deafness), they were completely different in their creative processes. Beethoven kept with him at all times a sketchbook, in which he stored musical ideas when they came to him, to be worked out at a later time. We can see in the sketchbooks how his most memorable melodies took shape only after hours of reworking, editing, and reshaping.

If Haydn was the “father” of the string quartet, it was Beethoven who took it to its highest development, inspiring later composers to greatness in the genre themselves—the finest of these were Bartók, Debussy, Ravel, Shostakovich, and Schoenberg. The string quartet is still regarded as the most difficult and prestigious of musical mediums for composers. Four homogenous strings force the composer to rely on purely musical devices like melodic development and rhythmic invention, less able to fall back on the temptations of changing timbre and color.

Beethoven’s creative life is customarily divided into three periods. In his “Early” (Classical) period he built on the innovations of Haydn and Mozart. From around 1803, when he was in his early thirties, as he began to come to terms with his impending deafness, his music took on aspects of the “heroic.” It was at this point in his life that his music often illustrated the idea of triumph over adversity. In his so-called “Late” period (he was only in his mid-forties) he seemed to turn completely inward, foreshadowing Romanticism. As deafness closed in on him, he found his ideal means of expression in the medium of the string quartet. The Opus 95 Quartet, composed in 1810, straddles the last two periods. It opens with the same gimmick as Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia (a dramatic unison gesture that immediately grabs our attention). But what follows is anything but Mendelssohn. In Op. 95 we can hear him searching for new sounds, even announcing his intentions with the title “Serioso.” Described by writers as “terse” and “tempestuous,” with “stark juxtapositions,” this is Beethoven’s shortest string quartet. The musicologist Joseph Kerman described it this way: “Everything unessential falls victim, leaving a residue of extreme concentration, in dangerously high tension.” In this transitional period, Beethoven’s music is characterized by short gestures and a kind of direct intensity. Fifteen years later, he would move fully into his “late” style in the quartets, expanding the time scale and retreating even deeper into introspection.

During his lifetime, Gustav Mahler was acknowledged as one of the Europe’s most important conductors. He was far less known as a composer. While heavily involved in the preparation, rehearsal, and staging of Beethoven’s single opera Fidelio, Mahler decided to make an arrangement of this string quartet for string orchestra, retaining Beethoven’s musical ideas while expanding the intimate conversation to a public scale. Inexplicably, Mahler’s arrangement met with derision and boos at its 1899 premiere, and Mahler never conducted it again. It was not heard again in public until 1986.
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