Sinfonia No. 7 in D Minor

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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 nineteenth 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.   These works 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.  Important steps along that way were the so-called “string symphonies,” or “sinfonias,” of which thirteen were composed by 1823 (when he was all of fourteen years old).  Young though he was, he exhibited a thorough mastery of his musical education in them.  While clearly juvenilia, they suffer few of the flaws in most young composers’ work.  They are concise in form, imaginative in melodic construction, well orchestrated, and deft in development of his ideas.   Those who enjoy looking for stylistic influences in young composers will find much grist for their mills, here.  Mendelssohn’s lifelong association with the music of J. S. Bach is clear in these works, as well as that of Bach’s son, C. P. E. Bach.  To this we must add, of course, a strong influence of Mozart, too.  He chose his models well.

            Sinfonia No. 7 begins forcefully with a jagged, descending arpeggio that serves as the main theme; a turn to the major brings the second main idea, which practically screams “Corelli,” as the chain suspensions of that composer carry us along.  The whole movement is suffused with the dark drama of Mozart’s mature operas.  The roadmap is clear, and the young composer goes on to end this little sonata movement dutifully in textbook form.  The charming slow movement is marked amorevole (with affection), and that it is--and makes ample use of that characteristic “sighing” motive so characteristic of the style gallant of C. P. E. Bach and company from some sixty years earlier.  But a nice harmonic surprise that is thoroughly romantic awaits us in the contrasting sections.   The obligatory minuet and trio is practically a scherzo, suggesting the great, scampering Mendelssohnian scherzos yet to come.  Though beginning darkly in the minor, the last movement quickly turns to the major, and we’re off to the races.  Soon, a little fugato in the best J. S. Bach tradition appears.  It is worked around, starts and stops, reminding us somewhat of the “fugal finales” of early Haydn.   That texture is soon abandoned, and Mendelssohn drives to a vigorous conclusion, with the ghosts of Corelli, the two Bachs, Mozart, and Haydn looking over his shoulder—I’m sure with approval.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan