Written by Ronald Comber

The Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

Of all the early Romantic composers, Mendelssohn has lately been somewhat eclipsed in the public favour.  Usually, when that happens, it is found that the composer has been one of fashions favourites, but perhaps not as great an artist as had been originally argued.  In Mendelssohn’s case, the problem is quite different.  He was too talented and yet too much of an anomaly to fit into our somewhat clichéd overview of the period.  In the early Romantic pantheon of artists, the bohemian, impoverished, undertrained student – struggling to work in a new musical language more to be felt than understood – holds a place at the very centre of importance.  Where then can Mendelssohn fit in?  The scion of a major banking house, actively encouraged from early youth to regard music as his reason for existence, Mendelssohn was blessed with almost unhuman amounts of talent, and received the best possible training so young that he was able to write flawless major works while still in his early teens.  What could such a fortunate youth know of the Romantic struggle?

One can clearly hear the difference between Mendelssohn and the other composers of the day.  His music, at its best has sheen to it – a sense of perfection surrounds it like an aura and often what is evoked is a landscape view of the world.  At its worst, Mendelssohn’s music has a more pronounced sheen and evokes nothing at all, for Mendelssohn wrote compulsively throughout his life and often spent little time mourning a piece’s shortcomings when he could be writing another.  Other, less gifted and less fortunate composers explored their emotions and strove to make them live through music, learning as they went.  Mendelssohn started from a different plane and travelled alone in a different artistic universe.

One example of Mendelssohn’s best work that has been somewhat neglected of late is today’s Hebrides Overture.  One of several descriptive overtures, the Hebrides was written in Rome in 1830 to commemorate the seascape around Fingal’s Cave, visited by the composer in the previous year.  Revised in 1832, the work was given its premiere the same year by the London Philharmonic.  It is a work whose perfections are so undeniable that even Wagner, who loathed Mendelssohn, praised it as a masterpiece, though he probably choked saying it.

The Hebrides is, in fact, so well written that it is hard to concentrate on it as it unfolds.  Seamless construction in sonata-allegro form gives balance and support to the rapidly changing orchestral textures.  It is one of the first attempts at musical landscape painting and its success is uncanny.

Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 11
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)

In some ways it is very difficult to write coherently about Frederic Chopin.  The personal mystique surrounding the man and his tragic and lingering end combine to obscure one’s vision of his early career.  And it is important to remember that the Frederic Chopin who wrote the two piano concertos was not yet the Frederic Chopin of the Paris salons, the patriot dying slowly from consumption, or the ill-starred lover.

Although Chopin made his international reputation working in Paris, he had already acquired a considerable fame in Eastern Europe during his adolescence. Studying and performing in Warsaw from the age of nine, he was both well taught by the best teachers and well-loved by a discriminating public.

Chopin wrote his two Piano Concertos in 1829-30 for his farewell concerts in Warsaw. Today’s Concerto in E minor was composed (after he completed the Second) in the spring and summer of 1830 and performed on October 11th of the same year. Remarkable for its tender melancholy as well as for a subtly evanescent Polish flavour, the Concerto in E minor proved to be Chopin’s passport to international glory from its first Parisian performance.

The Concerto in E minor is one of Chopin’s very few attempts at orchestral composition and is very much the work of a composer who lives for and with the piano in every waking moment, who betrays only the most cursory interest in his accompaniment. The overall effect is nonetheless glorious.

The first movement opens with a long orchestral introduction, often rigorously curtailed in performance, which builds to an extremely effective piano entry. The beautiful first and second subjects show Chopin’s art at its early best.

The second movement, to quote Chopin, is an “impression of the eye resting on some much-loved landscape which awakens pleasant recollections….”

The Rondo last movement is both dashing and brilliant – the quintessence of Chopin’s personal style and the root of his musical immortality.

Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

Beethoven’s First Symphony, written very probably in 1799, is a work grounded firmly in the eighteenth century, and yet it bears the seeds of the musical evolution to come.  At the time of its composition, the Symphonic ideal had been clearly defined among musicians and public alike by the later works of Mozart, and perhaps more importantly, Haydn.  The latter, still working happily in his old age, had produced a remarkable series of popularly recognized masterpieces, which represented the final flowering of the Classical vision.

Beethoven was very much influenced by Haydn’s music, although his attempts at studying with the great man in 1792 had been unsuccessful, to say the least.  Haydn had very early in their relationship grown disenchanted with Beethoven’s resolutely bucolic nature as well as with his adventurous manner of composition, while Beethoven in turn felt that Haydn had offered no real support or guidance.  In the end, Beethoven developed his own proto-Classical style through careful study on his own with a little help from a good technician of the time, Joseph Albrechtsberger.  As far as writing a symphony was concerned, Beethoven waited until he was absolutely sure of his resources, some few years.

At the premiere of the First Symphony on April 2, 1800, the result of all this labour was made readily apparent.  Critics and audience alike were made aware of a new force in the musical scene, but on the whole they found the vitality of Beethoven’s writing, especially in relation to the orchestration, to be too challenging.  A review in the Leipzig Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, sums it up best “…there was performed a Symphony of his composition which contained much artistry, novelty, and richness of ideas; the only objection was that the wind instruments were employed excessively, so that it was more military band than orchestral music”.  Soon enough, however, Beethoven’s comparatively modest innovations were generally accepted, as was shown in the critic’s hostility to his later works, when they would invariably bemoan the lost glories of the First Symphony.  Carl Maria von Weber, in a review of 1816, still favoured it above all that came after.

The Symphony is in the proper four movements.  The first, marked Adagio molto – Allegro con brio, although closely related to the Mozart-Haydn ideal, shows interesting touches which demonstrate already Beethoven’s personal style.  The very first chord, an unprepared (and unexpected) minor seventh, breaks with tradition, and throughout, the characteristic wind writing and the closely interwoven thematic structure suggest the shape of things to come.

The second movement, an Andante cantabile, has been justly famous for its simple purity and its immaculate part writing from the first performance.  Beethoven’s sense of drama, so prominent in his later works, here makes its first subtle appearance.

The Minuet, obeying all the Classical rules, nonetheless is a forerunner of the Scherzos to come.  Besides moving at a fair pace, it abounds in intriguing cross-rhythms.  The Trio is downright capricious.

The Finale, marked Adagio-Allegro molto e vivace, starts with a bang, than after several tentative attempts, accelerates into a spirited Allegro.  Only slightly more conservative than his later works, the movement concludes the Symphony in a mood of dapper humour.