Songs Without Words, German Lieder ohne Worte, collection of 48 songs written for solo piano rather than voice by German composer Felix Mendelssohn. Part of the collection—consisting of 36 songs—was published in six volumes during the composer’s lifetime. Two further volumes—with 12 more songs—were published after Mendelssohn’s death in 1847.

The first set of six songs, Op. 19, appeared in print in England in 1832 under the title Original Melodies for the Pianoforte. The following year it was published in Germany as Lieder ohne Worte. Five more collections appeared in the course of Mendelssohn’s abbreviated life (he died at age 38). These include Op. 30 (1835; first published in France as Six Romances and later that year in Germany as Lieder ohne Worte; all later volumes were published in Germany under the familiar title), Op. 38 (1837), Op. 53 (1841), Op. 62 (1844), and Op. 67 (1845). The posthumously published collections are Op. 85 (1851) and Op. 102 (1868). Five of the six volumes were dedicated to women, the fifth set to his friend and colleague Clara Schumann.

Mendelssohn wrote many of theses Songs without Words. I am giving you all of them in a recording by Walter Gieseking. Gieseking is known today as the pianist to turn to for interpretations of Debussy. As you will hear, he is also gifted in Mendelssohn. I realize that the recording is long. You can, if you like, listen to it over time.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (February 3, 1809 – November 4, 1847)
Songs Without Words

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.

Walter Gieseking

Born: November 5, 1895 – Lyons, France
Died: October 26, 1956 – London, England

The celebrated French-German pianist, Walter (Wilhelm) Gieseking, was largely self-taught as a pianist. He was born in France, and travelled with his family (his father was a distinguished doctor and entomologist) in France and Italy until he enrolled at the Hannover Conservatory, where he came under the tutelage of Karl Leimer, graduating in 1916.

In 1912 (or 1915) Walter Gieseking made his debut in Hannover. He was drafted into the German army in 1916, but escaped combat by performing in his regimental band. After the War, he undertook the life of a working musician, accompanying singers and instrumentalists, playing in chamber music ensembles, and working as an opera coach. He could hardly avoid the heady artistic atmosphere of post-war Germany, and he became an advocate of new music, playing works by Arnold Schoenberg, Ferruccio Busoni, Paul Hindemith, K. Szymanowski, and H. Pfitzner, whose Piano Concerto he premiered under Fritz Busch in 1923. From 1921 he made tours of Europe. In 1923 he made his British debut in London, his American debut at Aeolian Hall in New York in February 1926, and his debut in Paris in 1928. His debuts were highly acclaimed, with audiences and critics responding enthusiastically to Gieseking’s subtle shadings and contrapuntal clarity. After that he appeared regularly in the USA and Europe with orchestras and in solo recitals.

During the hostilities of World War II, Walter Gieseking, like many other artists, remained in Germany, and also performed sometimes in Nazi-occupied France. After the War he became the centre of political controversy when he arrived in the USA in 1949 for a concert tour; he was accused of cultural collaboration with the Nazi regime, and public protests forced the cancellation of his scheduled performances at Carnegie Hall in New York. However, he was later cleared by an Allied court in Germany and was able to resume his career in America, with the success it had formerly enjoyed. He appeared again at a Carnegie Hall recital in April 1953, and until his death continued to give numerous performances in both hemispheres.

To this activity Walter Gieseking added a heavy schedule of recording, committing to disc the complete solo piano music of Mozart and the L.v. Beethoven concertos, as well as complete sets of Debussy’s and Ravel’s piano works. At the time of his death in London, Gieseking was engaged on a project to record all the L.v. Beethoven piano sonatas. He recorded L.v. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 15 for HMV, had completed the first three movements and, the following day, was due to record the fourth. Sadly, he died during the night. HMV released the unfinished recording. His recordings of Debussy and Ravel are regarded as benchmarks for every subsequent performer. His recordings of Debussy’s Préludes, done in 1953 and 1955, have been re-released by EMI Classics in their “Great Recordings of the Century” collection. He was also a fine Bach interpreter and left an impressive legacy of Bach recordings (many of them from live German broadcasts).

Walter Gieseking was one of the most extraordinary pianists of his time. He is said to have been a natural and intuitive pianist. According to legend, he never practised except in his own mind. He apparently would study the score, imagine playing it, and then perform it flawlessly. His habit of spending hours in total silence as he pored over scores is said to have frustrated his wife greatly. A superb musician capable of profound interpretations of both Classical and modern scores, his dual German-French background enabled him to project with the utmost authenticity the masterpieces of both cultures. He particularly excelled in the music of Mozart, L.v. Beethoven, Schubert, and Johannes Brahms. It was with the repertoire of French masters that he became most famous. The impressionistic piano writing of C. Debussy and M. Ravel required the most sensitive touch and attention to colour and nuance, and Gieseking’s finger acuity, imaginative pedalling, and above all, preternaturally alert ear made him an ideal interpreter of this music. Nevertheless, his own repertoire ranged widely across eras and national boundaries. He was also an excellent performer of more modern works by the likes of S. Prokofiev, F. Busoni, P. Hindemith, A. Schoenberg, and the lesser-known Italian Goffredo Petrassi. He composed some chamber music and made piano transcriptions of songs by Richard Strauss. His autobiography, So Wurde ich Pianist, was published posth. in Wiesbaden (1963).