Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)


0120110418Donald Macleod explores Felix Mendelssohn's last seven years.

Donald Macleod explores Felix Mendelssohn's last seven years, starting with his appointment in 1841 to the post of Royal Prussian Kapellmeister in his home town of Berlin. For the previous six years Mendelssohn had been based in Leipzig, as director of the Gewandhaus Concerts. He had been spectacularly successful, turning the orchestra there into one of the finest in Europe - and thereby making himself an attractive prospect for neighbouring rulers to poach. The new king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, wanted to make Berlin a cultural centre to be reckoned with, and had decided that Mendelssohn was the man for the job. After six months of strenuous but largely unsuccessful attempts to hammer out the responsibilities of his post, Mendelssohn was offered a lucrative one-year contract on a pretty much take-it-or-leave-it basis; he took it, but the job remained ill-defined and he grew increasingly frustrated - not least with the lack of any progress whatsoever on the proposed new Berlin Conservatory, the creation of which had been a major carrot during the negotiations. Mendelssohn's incidental music to Sophocles' Antigone is one of the few fruits of this first Berlin post; but at least he had plenty of time to get to grips with the composition of his 'Scottish' Symphony, the seeds of which had been sown during his visit to the ruins of Queen Mary's palace of Holyrood in 1829. On hearing the symphony, one contemporary critic astutely commented, "we may prophesy that it will rouse pure feeling of pleasure everywhere".

Producer: Chris Barstow.

0220110419Donald Macleod continues his exploration of Mendelssohn's last seven years.

Donald Macleod continues his exploration of Mendelssohn's last seven years. Christmas 1842 must have been a bleak one in the Mendelssohn household; on 12 December the composer's mother, Lea, had died. Wealthy, cultured, intelligent and larger than life, Lea Mendelssohn had presided over a salon frequented by some of the greatest minds of the day. Mendelssohn's father, Abraham, had died some years earlier, so as the composer now wrote to his brother Paul: "We are children no longer." Understandably, fresh composition was difficult, and he started the new year by revising an old work - Die Erste Walpurgisnacht. Then there was a series of concerts to conduct in Berlin, along with the none-too-onerous 'duties' of his new, resounding-sounding appointment as Generalmusikdirector für kirchliche und geistliche Musik - although this did result in the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. When he had negotiated his new contract with the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, it had been agreed that Mendelssohn could spend part of 1843 in his old stamping-ground, Leipzig. On his arrival there he was promptly offered the job of Director of Music to the Saxon court - he declined, but managed to persuade King Frederick Augustus III to establish a new music conservatory in the city. He also conducted a series of eight subscription concerts, was granted the Freedom of the city of Leipzig, and unveiled a monument to his musical hero, J S Bach. Back in Berlin, he was driven up the wall by the Prussian government's shilly-shallying over the conditions attached to his new post in charge of church music. He worked off some of his frustration in paint - not just a prodigious composer, he was a talented artist as well - and in the composition of his exuberant 2nd Cello Sonata.

0320110420Donald Macleod continues a focus on Mendelssohn's last seven years with a look at 1844.

Donald Macleod continues his exploration of Mendelssohn's last seven years with a look at the year 1844. Towards the end of the previous year the composer had finally, after months of wrangling, taken up his new appointment as Director of Sacred Music in Berlin. In the event, he found it impossible to work with the court chaplain, Friedrich Adolf Strauss, and ended up providing music for just four services - Christmas, New Year's Day, Passion Sunday and Good Friday. It doubtless came as a great relief to him to return, in the spring, to a city he had first visited in 1829 - London, or "that smoky nest", as he fondly called it. He had agreed to help out the Philharmonic Society, whose finances were in a bad way, by conducting a few concerts for them. The headache induced by a seven-hour rehearsal meant that he had to turn down an invitation to visit Charles Babbage of Difference Engine fame, but Mendelssohn did get to meet Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, who pronounced his face: "the most beautiful...I ever saw, like what I imagine our Saviour's to have been..." His stay was crowned by an audience with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It was also during this visit that he composed one of his best-known works - Hear My Prayer, whose second section opens with the line that has given the piece its popular name: 'O for the wings of a dove'. Another of Mendelssohn's most popular creations dates from autumn of the same year - the Violin Concerto, written for his old friend Ferdinand David. David played the première on his 1742 Guarneri del Gesu violin, which later passed to Jascha Heifetz, who plays it on the recording you'll hear in the programme.

0420110421Donald Macleod explores Felix Mendelssohn's last seven years.

Donald Macleod continues his exploration of Mendelssohn's last seven years. In October 1844, the composer took the bull by the horns in an audience with his royal employer Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, and asked to be released from his service to the crown - a grand-sounding, but in practice rather vague position, which had been a source of immense frustration and disappointment to the composer. His request was granted - more or less. Mendelssohn would no longer be required to live in Berlin, and there'd be no fixed duties to perform; just the occasional royal commission. One such commission was to supply incidental music for a performance of Racine's play Athalie (as Donald suggests, the full-blooded choruses give tantalizing glimpses of the opera Mendelssohn might have composed, had he lived long enough). Early in 1845 came a request out of the blue from the other side of the world - the newly-created New York Philharmonic Society was inviting him to go to the United States to conduct a "Grand Musical Festival", with an orchestra of 250 and chorus of 500 at his disposal. Mendelssohn declined - he didn't feel his health would be up to such a long and arduous trip, and he told his brother Paul that undertaking such a venture would be "no more possible than a trip to the moon". Instead, he composed a set of six small but perfectly formed organ sonatas for the British publisher Charles Coventry, and worked on his highly virtuosic 2nd Piano Trio, written in Frankfurt during a freak flood of the River Main; perhaps that's reflected in the stormy opening of the trio's first movement!

05 LAST20110422Donald Macleod explores the success of Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah.

Donald Macleod concludes his exploration of Mendelssohn's last seven years with a look at the genesis of his oratorio Elijah, whose popularity in Victorian England was second only to that of Handel's Messiah - certainly not a claim that could be made today, when it tends to be regarded as the height of kitsch. In 1846, the city of Birmingham invited Mendelssohn to take charge of its music festival. He turned the job down, but agreed instead to compose an oratorio for the festival. After the earlier success of his oratorio St Paul, Mendelssohn had considered composing an Elijah; the Birmingham commission prompted him to return to this idea, which he'd had on the back burner for the past 10 years. The first performance was a huge success - "Never was there a more complete triumph!", as The Times put it - but Mendelssohn wasn't completely satisfied, and immediately set about overhauling the work for the London première the following year. According to a contemporary report it was met with a "long-continued unanimous volley of plaudits, vociferous and deafening applause." Mendelssohn's elation, however, was short-lived. On his return to Germany he was met by a letter from his brother Paul, telling him that their beloved sister Fanny had suffered a series of strokes and died - while rehearsing one of his pieces. Mendelssohn remained in a state of emotional collapse for some time, but when he was able to compose again he poured his grief out in his anguished 6th String Quartet - the last major work he completed before his own death, just two months later.