Concerto for Two Pianos in E Major

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            In addition to Mendelssohn's remarkable, broad education in the liberal arts, he and Fanny studied music, of course. Their precociousness was recognized early on.   Young Felix began piano lessons at the age of six—all four of the siblings studied piano.   The family’s wealth and social position afforded them access to Europe’s outstanding teachers and performers, and Felix and Fanny advanced with impressive abilities.   In addition to their piano studies the two siblings studied counterpoint and composition with a well-known scholar, and benefited immensely by a veritable immersion in the music of the Baroque and Classic periods, especially that of J. S. Bach and Mozart.  Their compositional efforts began early, and an impressive stream of compositions poured forth by Felix’s early teens, including the twelve “string symphonies."

            His concerto for two pianos in E major was written in 1823, when the composer was fourteen, and was first performed by Fanny and him in December of that year at the home of their father, Abraham.  It is his fourth essay in the concerto genre, having just finished three others in the previous year’s time.  He went on to compose a second concerto for two pianos the very next year.   Interestingly, the E major concerto enjoyed only two other performances for the rest of the century:  six years later in London with his friend the great virtuoso, Ignaz Moscheles, and some thirty years later by two students of Moscheles.  After that it lay unknown until 1950 when its manuscript was “rediscovered.”

            The concerto obviously was conceived as a showpiece for the young siblings. Accordingly it is replete with the kinds of impressive virtuoso figurations that were becoming all the fashion at the time.  While, today, Beethoven and Schubert’s music from that decade dominates our concert stages, there were plenty of contemporaneous composers whose popular style was decidedly “flashier” and more concerned with wowing the listener than that of the two immortals.  So, we should not be surprised that a young teenager, exercising his own skills as composer and performer, should be tempted somewhat in the latter direction.  Both he and Fanny played exceptionally well, and the music shows it in the exuberant technical passages that a more mature composer would have pruned back a bit.  The ghost of Mozart is surely looking over the composer’s shoulder, and Mendelssohn admirably informs much of the work with the former’s virtues.

            The concerto begins conventionally with an extended section for the orchestra alone, where most of the important material is heard—not saving anything important for the soloists, as later became the norm.   The mood begins gently—somewhat Mozartian, to be sure, but equally characteristic of the mature Mendelssohn, as well.   After some stormy moments in the minor mode, the soloists enter alone and somewhat pensively, but surely with a bit of the exhibitionist, too.   Mendelssohn is quite careful to divide the material equally with his sister, as they trade roulades and melodies in total equanimity.  The opening section ends dramatically, as we might expect, in the dominant, b minor.  But, the young Mendelssohn has already learned a thing or two, and the development begins most surprisingly in the rather romantic key of G major—it’s hard to miss; the solo pianos echo the cadenza-like rhetoric of their first entrance.   The return to the opening is heralded by a grand sustained chord, which leads to the spirited, animated charge to the end.

            The adagio central movement—in a gentle, rocking 6/8 time--brings to mind, if you will, not only the warm, gracious expansiveness that characterized elements in the composer’s oratorios, such as Elijah, but a bit of Chopin, as well.   Through it all, we remember the gift for melody familiar from his Songs without Words. The last movement, as you might expect, is a romp, with all the dashing scales, arpeggios, and dizzy figurations that one desires.   There is more repetition than is usual in a typical concerto, but we have two virtuosos to please, and one’s attention is more than arrested by their give and take as they take turns scampering along in a party that seems loathe to end.  But end it must, and a mad dash of technical brilliance caps it off.   Years later, the mature Mendelssohn spent no small amount of time trying to tighten up the structure, eliminate redundancies, and “modernize” it a bit—but this first version documents a fourteen-year-old genius whose remarkable musical facility is completely convincing in what it portends.  Forget its youthful indiscretions and enjoy!

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan