Nocturno, op. 24

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            Mendelssohn was a prodigy, born into a distinguished family of Jewish bankers and philosophers.  He and his sister Fanny--also a talented composer, conductor, and pianist—were raised in a warm, intellectual, highly supportive artistic family.  In point of fact, Felix and his sister were incredibly precocious.   He was probably one of the best-educated major composers of all time. Voracious readers, interested in science and philosophy, and daily conversationalists with the leading minds of Germany, the siblings even started their own literary magazine in their early teens.  Obviously, they matured quickly, and a stream of musical compositions soon flowed from them both.   Mendelssohn was clearly one of the most important German composers of the 19th century, and infused the expressiveness of early romantic music with the clarity and intellectuality of Mozart and Haydn’s classicism.  This exquisite balance found expression in a wide variety of musical genres; Mendelssohn was as at home writing Protestant oratorios such as Elijah and St. Paul as he was composing chamber music and symphonies.   He created a significant body of work in his relatively short life, including major works for orchestra that constitute an important part of today’s repertoire.   They include five symphonies, six concert overtures, and six concertos.

            His musical style reflects, to a large degree, his upbringing and his personality—it speaks of discipline, balance, and an overall cheerful, largely untroubled mien.   While his compositions reflect solicitude for clear, balanced musical structures, and an obvious avoidance of excess of romantic emotion and empty virtuosity, there is nevertheless a sentimental and emotive quality to them.  His personal musical voice reached maturity by the remarkable age of seventeen, a feat some say that even Mozart did not attain.

            The charming little Nocturno for eleven wind instruments was composed in 1824, when the fifteen-year old Mendelssohn was vacationing with his father at Bad Doberan, a popular resort on the coast of the Baltic Sea.  He had already composed some impressive works that year, a time when he was rapidly coming into musical maturity, and gaining a familiarity with works of significant composers such as Beethoven and Weber.  Composed for the musicians of the a local court wind band—such groups were called Harmoniemusik in those times—his Nocturno expanded the usual four pairs of oboes, clarinets, and bassoons and horns with the addition of a flute, trumpet, and English bass horn (corno inglese di basso).  The less said about the latter instrument the better; made of wood, with a metal bell and played with cup mouthpiece, it probably frightened the horses.  But, the composer knew the ensemble needed a bit more bass support than the second bassoon alone could provide.  So he scored for one of the many makeshift instruments needed in the brass section before finally the tuba was invented and problem solved.  The latter, or perhaps string bass, is now the instrument of choice for the Nocturno.

            Also known as Overture für Harmoniemusik, or Overture for Band in the US, the Nocturno has led a varied life—not only in titles, for there are versions for larger instrumentation as well.   But, the one for eleven is the original.  Cast in two sections, it opens with in a tranquil, bucolic vein, in the best Romantic style familiar from so many of his works, with a slightly more energetic middle section providing a bit of contrast.   A spritely allegro second section provides a dashing conclusion, with the usual two main themes, a development, and recap.