Violin Concerto in E Minor, op. 64

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            Mendelssohn wrote several concertos for both piano and for violin.   The last concerto, for violin, is one of the most important solo works of the nineteenth century.    Finished in the fall of 1844, after many years of work, the concerto is the product of a man at the height of his artistic powers.   At the time he was literally the toast of Europe, composing fervidly, visiting everywhere as guest conductor and composer, serving as music administrator of a new conservatory in Leipzig, and all the while trying to cope with the bedeviling trials of an official appointment at the Prussian court at Berlin and Potsdam.  He was literally working himself to death, and his life, indeed only lasted a few more years.

            The concerto was premièred in 1845 in Leipzig by Mendelssohn’s friend, the great violinist, Ferdinand David, but the performance of it by the very young virtuoso of violin, Joachim, one month before Mendelssohn’s death in 1847 must have been a particularly poignant one.   At the time he was driven to incapacitation by the death of his beloved sister; that and his onerous professional schedule led to a series of strokes that killed him.

            The concerto’s enduring popularity is ensured by its intrinsic beauty and musicality, but there are some interesting points about it that led to its place as a model for later composers of violin concertos, including Tchaikovsky and Sibelius.   Foremost is the entry of the solo violin right at the beginning; traditionally, the orchestra begins with a section that announces the themes, and then is joined somewhat later by the entrance of the soloist.   In addition, Mendelssohn moved the place of the solo cadenza to a point earlier in the first movement, just before the recapitulation, rather than nearer the end, before the coda.   Finally, the composer wrote out exactly what he wanted the soloist play in the cadenza, rather than leaving it to the compositional skills (and taste!) of the soloist, in the traditional manner. Although cast in the familiar three movements of a concerto, it was written in such a way as to move seamlessly from one to the other without a break.  Audiences in those days were used to applauding between movements and this feature probably came as a bit of surprise to them.  The bridge between the first two movements is a low sustained B in the bassoon that moves up to the C of the key of the winsome melody of the second movement.  The third movement is segued into by a transition passage for solo violin and strings, out of which bursts the main theme of the rondo in the major key, announced by a kind of trumpet fanfare.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan