Reconstructing Mendelssohn…

An Interview between Jessica Duchen and R. Larry Todd.

R. Larry Todd is the author of the definitive biography Mendelssohn: A Life in Music. He is Arts and Sciences Professor of Music at Duke University, has devoted the majority of his academic career to the study of our Felix and is shortly to publish a biography of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel. In this exclusive interview, he talks about how he set about reconstructing Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No.3.

JD: How did you come to be reconstructing this concerto?

RLT: The autograph is in Oxford at the Bodleian Library. At the time Mendelssohn began working on the violin concerto around 1838 he got the idea for the opening. In 1840-42 when he was getting ready to go to England on his seventh or eighth trip, he thought about writing a piano concerto: in a letter to one of his publishers he mentions he is considering finishing his piano concerto, but nothing came of this at the time. Then a couple of years later in 1844, he went to England again and the same thing happened. Again he says he’s thinking of finishing a piano concerto to bring to England, once again he didn’t manage to do so. Instead he played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and there’s an anecdote that in rehearsals he improvised four or five different cadenzas and in the performance he improvised yet another, which kind of messed up the orchestra – but that’s another issue!

Then he went back to Germany and in August of 1844 he’d finished the score of the violin concerto and begun to revise it; it was then premiered by Ferdinand David in 1845 in Leipzig. So the E minor piano concerto is presumably the piece that filled the gap and there are several things that point to that: the proximity to the violin concerto and the fact that the second theme of the piano concerto’s first movement is very similar to the famous second theme of the violin concerto; and the fact that in preliminary studies for it, putting the pieces together, you can see that the piano concerto was a sort of interim stage on the way to the violin concerto that we all know.

I looked at it first in 1980 and was intrigued by it. We have several pages in continuity draft, a piano score for the first movement, so in the first movement it’s pretty clear what the music is going to be. He had actually started orchestrating it – there’s a page or two of full orchestral score – so it’s interesting to see the point at which he was ready to start writing it out. As for the second movement, it’s more sketchlike – he did sketches for it, enough to see that it was going to be a three-part piece in A minor, then A major, then returning to A minor.

I began to flesh out the orchestration a little; in the case of the first movement it was mainly a matter of orchestrating, because most of the content was there. That was back into the 1980s and with that we had a two-movement concerto. I played it at my university; in the early 1990s it was recorded by Jennifer Eley on Koch International & was done by Masur at the Gewandhaus in 1997.

The problem was the lack of a third movement. I thought long and hard about what to do. There were several possibilities. One was to try to compose a movement, but I felt that wasn’t a good idea – the end result would not have been Mendelssohn. And I should explain that at the end of the sketches for the second movement he did leave a sketch for a transition to the finale. We know the finale would have been in E major; there are two very short melodic sketches which might be what he would have put in the finale, but they are very crude ideas – there’s really nothing to go on, no harmonisation, very scraplike, and using my judgment I felt this didn’t make sense as a basis. Next I thought about taking the Rondo Capriccioso, which is in E minor, and transcribing that, turning it into a finale, which could have been fun.

But then it struck me that because the piano concerto is integrally related to the violin concerto, the best thing to do might be to take the finale of the violin concerto and transcribe it for piano. As the themes are related and date from the same period of Mendelssohn’s life I think the transcription was justifiable. There’s a precedent in a piano concerto transcription of the Beethoven violin concerto and it seemed to be the solution, so that’s what we’ve done.

JD: It’s an amazing achievement to be able to think yourself into a composer’s skin to that extent.

RLT: It’s a challenge, and it’s going to annoy some violinists! But I think it works fairly well. It’s mainly been a matter of adding bits of counterpoint to it; I did not turn it into a Lisztian event, but it’s full of that light, Weber-like virtuosity that’s typical of Mendelssohn and it’s a challenge as a piano part but it works pretty well. It ‘completes’ the piece and gives it the third movement it needs, so we have a sense of this piece being an entire work. Having said that, it’s like a minefield trying to finish any important piece – Beethoven’s Tenth or Schubert’s Unfinished or what have you. It’s fraught with problems and there are always those who think it’s not worth the effort. But for me it just seemed there was such a substantial amount of music there that Mendelssohn had left and that could be immediately known. And it sheds interesting light on the violin concerto, opening a window on that as well.

JD: Do you think it stands a good chance of entering the repertoire alongside the other two piano concertos?

RLT: That’s the question that remains to be answered. Mathias Kirschnereit played it in Bavaria in January and I think he likes the piece. Generally I think the jury is still out; it’s remains to be seen whether other folks like the idea of the violin concerto being reused this way or not. Overall, I think the first movement is rather strong, the second movement is like a Gondola-Lied in a way, with a very lyrical middle section, and the finale is from the violin concerto and the question is does it work on the piano or are we predisposed to hearing it on the violin? One critic in Germany liked the piece and was imagining a pianist with a violinist, calling it maybe a doppelkonzert – perhaps it should be done that way. I was musing about this the other night and thinking that maybe the first movement would be for piano, the second movement could be for both instruments, and the last movement would allow the violinist to play the violin concerto…

JD: What would you say are the guiding principles of Mendelssohn’s orchestration?

RLT: The amazing thing about Mendelssohn is that he’s essentially using a classical, double-wind orchestra so his orchestral resources are, in comparison to Berlioz and others, really quite conservative. But the beauty of it is that he’s able to extract from a traditional orchestra a wonderful palette of colours. He really is a colourist, a painter – which he also was even literally. The way he uses the orchestra is to blend different colours, different shades; it’s an orchestration based on nuance. If you look at the autographs of the violin concerto, there are two versions – he revised everything he wrote – but in the revision of the orchestral score it’s a question of fine adjustment, like a painter, dabbing here and there to adjust the perception of this or the tone of that. It’s very subtle, and those subtleties are often lost if the piece is overplayed. That’s part of his genius.

From what I can tell, he was essentially a synaesthete, meaning that for him visual and musical imagery are interconnected. So when he goes to the Hebrides and he’s in Oban looking out at the coastline of Mull, it’s there he gets the idea for the opening of the Hebrides Overture and he writes a famous letter that sketches everything out in piano score. The fact that he puts it in a particular location means it’s clear that already in that composition there’s something about the particular combinations of colour that evolve and that what’s triggering it is the visual impression of looking out at the Isle of Mull. Well before he even got to Fingal’s Cave, he’s having the ideas for the Overture and it’s a visual impression that’s sparking the musical response. These things go hand in hand and particularly are tied in with the art of orchestration. That’s the romantic side of Mendelssohn.

He’s a composer who’s so versatile: on one hand he could write counterpoint that’s almost as Bachian as anything Bach wrote, yet on the other hand he could write the Hebrides Overture and there’s a letter where he’s rejecting the first version of it because he says it ‘smells too much of counterpoint’ and not enough of seagulls. He could adjust his aesthetic according to the context, depending on what he’s writing. In the case of Hebrides Overture he’s going into the most exotic and romantic aspect that he could conjure up.

JD: Is there anything else you would like to see happen in Mendelssohn Year?

RLT: The big missing link would be if anybody can find the cello concerto! There was a report that he was going to write, or wrote, a cello concerto for Alfredo Piatti, the Italian cellist, but it’s never been found; nobody’s seen anything in Mendelssohn’s sketches that looks like a cello concerto. But maybe in some Italian archive somewhere there’s a draft of a cello concerto…and then maybe we’ll be doing this all over again!


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The Composers of the Year feature in a BBC 2 series, in May 2009 - Charles Hazlewood introduces the programmes.

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