I decided that this week I would post an instrumentalist instead of a singer. This is Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, opus 64. It is an immensely popular work, and most great violinists have either played it or made recordings of it. I am posting Nathan Milstein’s version of the concerto, accompanied by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Milstein is one of my favorite violinists. The sound that he is able to get out of the violin is astonishingly beautiful.

The Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, is one of the most lyrical and flowing works of its type and one of the most frequently performed of all violin concerti. It premiered in Leipzig on March 13, 1845.

Mendelssohn, then conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, composed his concerto with violinist Ferdinand David, his concertmaster, in mind. The men had been good friends since they were teenagers. Although Mendelssohn had first mentioned writing a violin concerto in 1838, it was not completed until 1844. On the day of the premiere, David was the soloist, but Mendelssohn, who was ill, could not conduct his new work, so the orchestra was led instead by Mendelssohn’s assistant, Danish conductor and composer Niels Gade.

Mendelssohn used the standard classical structures for the piece, but he made adaptations to better suit both his own tastes and the changing times. These changes include an almost instant introduction of the solo instrument and, until then unusual, a written-out solo cadenza; these were usually improvised by the soloist.

The turbulent first movement, “Allegro molto appassionato,” is written in classic sonata allegro form, having a variety of thematic expositions, a development, and recapitulation of the themes. Rather than bringing this movement to a defined close after the coda, Mendelssohn has a single bassoon playing a sustained tone provide the bridge to the overall restful mood of the second movement, “Andante,” which is in ternary (ABA) form. Again eliminating the standard moments of silence between movements, Mendelssohn immediately starts the third movement, “Allegretto non troppo—allegro molto vivace,” which he composed in hybrid sonata rondo form. He concludes with the sprightly, vibrant, even joyous music he seemed to create so effortlessly throughout his career.

Evidence from Mendelssohn’s correspondence suggests that he connected the movements into an uninterrupted span of music because he, as a performer, found mid-composition applause to be distracting. It is in part because of Mendelssohn that the modern tradition of holding applause to the end of a work came to be standard practice.

Milstein

Nathan Milstein, (born Dec. 31, 1903, Odessa, Ukraine, Russian Empire—died Dec. 21, 1992, London, Eng.), one of the leading violinists of the 20th century, especially acclaimed for his interpretations of J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied violin sonatas as well as for works from the Romantic repertoire.

Among Milstein’s teachers were two celebrated violinists, Leopold Auer in St. Petersburg and Eugène Ysaÿe in Brussels. Milstein gave concerts throughout the Soviet Union, frequently in joint recital with the pianist Vladimir Horowitz. In 1925 he moved to Paris. He toured Europe annually from 1927 until World War II, resuming in 1947.

Nathan Milstein playing an 18th-century violin made by renowned violin maker Antonio Stradivari.

In 1928 he went to the United States, later becoming a U.S. citizen. From his American debut in 1929 as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he made extensive tours of the United States and Canada and recorded widely. He also published a number of transcriptions for the violin. In 1968 he was honoured by France by being made an officer of the Legion of Honor.

Mendelssohn

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy lived from February 3, 1809 to November 4, 1847 and was widely known as Felix Mendelssohn.

A grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn was born into a prominent Jewish family. He was brought up without religion until the age of seven, when he was baptised as a Reformed Christian.

Mendelssohn enjoyed early success in Germany, and revived interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, notably with his performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829.

Life

Childhood

Mendelssohn was the second of four children; his older sister Fanny also displayed exceptional and precocious musical talent.

The family moved to Berlin in 1811. Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn sought to give their children – Fanny, Felix, Paul and Rebecka – the best education possible. Fanny became a pianist well known in Berlin musical circles as a composer; originally Abraham had thought that she, rather than Felix, would be the more musical. But it was not considered proper, by either Abraham or Felix, for a woman to pursue a career in music, so she remained an active but non-professional musician. Abraham was initially disinclined to allow Felix to follow a musical career until it became clear that he was seriously dedicated.

Career

Mendelssohn began taking piano lessons from his mother when he was six, and at seven was tutored by Marie Bigot in Paris. Later in Berlin, all four Mendelssohn children studied piano with Ludwig Berger, who was himself a former student of Muzio Clementi. From at least May 1819 Mendelssohn (initially with his sister Fanny) studied counterpoint and composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter in Berlin.

Mendelssohn probably made his first public concert appearance at the age of nine, when he participated in a chamber music concert accompanying a horn duo. He was a prolific composer from an early age. As an adolescent, his works were often performed at home with a private orchestra for the associates of his wealthy parents amongst the intellectual elite of Berlin. Between the ages of 12 and 14, Mendelssohn wrote 12 string symphonies for such concerts, and a number of chamber works. His first work, a piano quartet, was published when he was 13. In 1824 the 15-year-old wrote his first symphony for full orchestra (in C minor, Op. 11).

At age 16 Mendelssohn wrote his String Octet in E-flat major, a work which has been regarded as “mark[ing] the beginning of his maturity as a composer.”

In 1824 Mendelssohn studied under the composer and piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles, who confessed in his diaries that he had little to teach him. Moscheles and Mendelssohn became close colleagues and lifelong friends. It was around this time that the Quintet in A Major was written. The year 1827 saw the premiere – and sole performance in his lifetime – of Mendelssohn’s opera Die Hochzeit des Camacho. The failure of this production left him disinclined to venture into the genre again.

I am going to stop the discussion of Mendelssohn’s life here at approximately age 17. It is a very interesting life, and if you are interested, I urge you to listen to the Mendelssohn Octet. I will close with two paragraphs on Mendelssohn’s death.

Death

On his last visit to Britain in 1847, Mendelssohn was the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and conducted his own with the Philharmonic Orchestra before the Queen and Prince Albert. Mendelssohn suffered from poor health in the final years of his life, probably aggravated by nervous problems and overwork. A final tour of England left him exhausted and ill, and the death of his sister, Fanny, on May 14, 1847, caused him further distress. Fewer than six months later, on November 4, aged 38, Mendelssohn died in Leipzig after a series of strokes. His grandfather Moses, Fanny, and both his parents had all died from similar conditions.

In the 20th century the Nazi regime and its Reichsmusikkammer cited Mendelssohn’s Jewish origin in banning performance and publication of his works, even asking Nazi-approved composers to rewrite incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Under the Nazis, “Mendelssohn was presented as a dangerous ‘accident’ of music history, who played a decisive role in rendering German music in the 19th century ‘degenerate’. The German Mendelssohn Scholarship for students at the Leipzig Conservatoire was discontinued in 1934 (and not revived until 1963). The monument dedicated to Mendelssohn erected in Leipzig in 1892 was removed by the Nazis in 1936. A replacement was erected in 2008. The bronze statue of Mendelssohn by Clemens Buscher (1855–1916) outside the Düsseldorf Opera House was also removed and destroyed by the Nazis in 1936. A replacement was erected in 2012. Mendelssohn’s grave remained unmolested during the National Socialist years.