Wed, July 19, 2023 by Jim Berkenstock
Who was the most precocious classical composer of all? Many would reasonably say Mozart, but I guess my title gives away my choice. This is not to say that Mendelssohn was a better composer than Mozart. It is just a comparison of their quickness in developing a mature style. Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate is to pick an age, say eighteen years old, and see where each composer was at that point. By that time, Mendelssohn had written several parts of his Incidental Music for Midsummer’s Night Dream, his wonderful Piano Sextet, his fabulous String Octet, and several other works considered among his finest. At the same point, Mozart was still a few years away from some of his truly memorable works. This is not to say that Mozart didn’t catch up with, or even surpass, Mendelssohn, it’s just that Mendelssohn got a head start. Some might say that Mozart’s genius accelerated into the end of his life whereas Mendelssohn’s may have tapered off a bit. It is hard to believe that Mendelssohn could have continued his torrid early trajectory.
It is fortunate for us that each composer was so precocious because their lives were so tragically short. Mozart died when he was 36 and Mendelssohn at 38. Had Johannes Brahms died at that age, he would be probably little more than a footnote in the lives of Robert and Clara Schumann. Joseph Haydn also had little to show of his eventual greatness by this age. However, genius has different ways of manifesting itself in different people. In some cases, the wine of artistic ingenuity has to take its time developing in the cellar.
In both Mozart’s and Mendelssohn’s cases, their progress was aided by highly stimulative youthful environments. Mozart’s father was a noted violinist and composer who wrote a well-known treatise on violin playing. He also recognized very early the extraordinary nature of his son’s talent and pushed his development and cashed in (somewhat ruthlessly) on his remarkable performing ability as a source of family income. Nonetheless, Mozart rose to the challenge, the stimulation, and the resulting exposure, which fanned his development.
Similarly, Mendelssohn came from a very stimulating environment. His grandfather was the famous philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and his father was a successful banker. Their comfortable home in Berlin was a hub of intellectual activity, seeing frequent visits from famous artists, musicians, scientists, and mathematicians. At the age of 12, he was also befriended by the elderly Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, then in his 70s. It was to be a productive and rewarding friendship. For young Mendelssohn and inspired several important works by the composer.
Like Mozart, Mendelssohn was a prodigy at the piano, but he also studied violin diligently and wrote 12 string symphonies by the time he was 12 years old. He was extremely well informed in effective ways to write for string instruments, and this foundation served him well and is audible to even the untrained ear.
Mendelssohn wrote two String Quintets, the first at 18 and only a year after his String Octet. The second quintet comes from 20 years later, just two years before his death and would be his next to last chamber music work. It is this latter work that will feature our five string players under the leadership of David Perry’s scintillating violin playing as a conclusion to our next program. Remarkably, this work seems to have all the fire and energy that make his youthful works so infectious, especially in the first movement and the finale. The fiery energy is palpable as the rosin explodes from the strings. The scherzo is an interesting contrast. It is more of an elegantly demure minuet, almost waltz-like and provides a courtly relief, albeit with some whimsy, from the drive of the first movement. The slow movement is beautifully reverential but with an underlying passionate yearning. From beginning to end, this is a musical trip that seems to take us through many levels of emotion and energy.
The program opens with a work for the same quintet instrumentation (a string quartet plus an additional viola) by a somewhat unknown predecessor of Mendelssohn’s, Michael Haydn, the unjustifiably neglected younger brother of Joseph Haydn. Michael spent much of life in Salzburg, employed by the archbishop who, for a time, also employed Mozart. The two composers were friends, but it is easy to see how Michael could have been overshadowed by his younger, flamboyant, virtuosic colleague. Following Mozart’s departure for Vienna, Michael’s brother, Joseph, was gaining more and more attention, and once again, Michael found himself somewhat overlooked—the “other” Haydn. As you will see from the opening String Quintet on our program, Michael Haydn was a very inventive composer possessing a keen sense of craftsmanship and a lively wit, much like his brother’s. The energy, drive, and charm seem a worthy predecessor companion for the Mendelssohn. It may have been works like this by Michael that inspired Mozart to write the six quintets for the same instrumentation that he penned very near the end of his life.
In between we present our oboe soloist, Lindsay Flowers, in a beautifully evocative work for oboe and strings by the English composer, Ernest Joseph Moeran, that showcases the haunting and lovely sound Lindsay brings to her performances. The work is in one movement but with several contrasting sections. While it is an early 20th century piece, it is very romantic in concept and vocabulary.
We perform these works four times in different locations:
- Thursday, July 20th, 7:00 pm, Old Gibraltar Town Hall, Fish Creek
- Saturday, July 22, 7:00 pm, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Sister Bay
- Sunday, July 23, 5:00 pm, Woodwalk Gallery, Egg Harbor
- Wednesday, July 26, 7:00 pm, Sister Bay Moravian Church
Our June/July concerts are rapidly coming to a conclusion, so don’t miss these wonderful opportunities. Call 920.854.7088 or visit www.midsummersmusic.com for tickets or more information. Most concerts include a casual reception following with an opportunity to visit with the musicians and other concert goers. Several recent concerts have been sold-out, so getting tickets in advance is recommended.