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Liebesfreud: Music

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809–1847); Theme with Variations (Andante sostenuto) and Scherzo (Allegro leggiero), Op. 81 (1847)

A few moments spent thinking about Mendelssohn prompt me to write voluminously on Romanticism, Classicism, and Mendelssohn’s uneasy relationship with both. Fortunately, there isn’t space for such a disquisition and I’m not competent to produce it.
Still, such reflections can form an interesting context in which to hear what are, apparently, the middle movements of a Quartet on which he was engaged when he died so absurdly and appallingly young.

Mendelssohn’s Scherzos are universally admired. For the most part they aren’t the speeded-up Minuets alternating with a Trio (or two) that occur so often in Beethoven (although he could write those perfectly well). Instead, he more or less invented an absolutely distinctive “type” characterized by textures of incredible delicacy and strength (no-one—not even Mozart—was a greater virtuoso when it came to obligato counterpoint) and by hints at sonata processes that reveal his mastery and understanding thereof far more vividly than most of his “official” symphonic movements.
Whatever the medium, those gossamer textures inevitably suggest the “fairy music” he wrote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream; we perceive them as the quintessence of Romanticism and I find it deeply touching that this atmosphere seems to have liberated his most purely Classical inspiration. There isn’t much to say about the present example, except that it is as great as a Mendelssohn Scherzo can be, and no “-ism” can account for its intensely poetic ending.

Even Mendelssohn’s most devout admirers (I am one) can be made uncomfortable by some of his slow movements. There was a certain kind of square-cut, hymn-like melody—one whose antecedent phrases suggest lamentably predictable consequents (he usually accepts the suggestion)—which, conventionally harmonized, seemed to occur to him when real inspiration (the Octet, the Violin Concerto) wasn’t there, for whatever reason. This “Theme” is a fair instance of that problem and the prospect of “Variations” being written on it is not encouraging; Mendelssohn sometimes prettified rather than varied.
Fortunately, Mendelssohn was a genius and he utterly confounds my simple-minded expectations. Everything about the movement—the re-interpretations of the theme’s cadential harmonies; the steady, step-wise increases in intensity and the passion of the Presto that results there-from; the rescue of the “Theme” from what feels like chaos, and the radiance of the final measures—is of Beethovenish penetration and cogency.
It is, again, the purest Romanticism.