Mendelssohn & David

The ridiculous idea still lingers that Mendelssohn was at his greatest as a young man. If anything should dispel the myth, it is his miraculous Violin Concerto in E minor, a product of his last years and recognized since its premiere as a masterpiece of the genre. Original in concept and perfect in execution, it was the product of hard graft, assisted by Mendelssohn’s friend and chosen soloist, Ferdinand David.

The original manuscript was lost for decades after World War II, but when Luigi Alberto Bianchi tracked it down some years ago, we could see that changes were being made right up to the time of publication. Mendelssohn started thinking of it in July 1838 and its opening bars haunted him, but he did not complete it until the summer of 1844, and by that September he had finished the orchestral score. Even then he was assailed by doubts and he initiated a flurry of correspondence with David on numerous details, all of which contributed to the jewelled precision of the final score.

Mendelssohn dispenses with the usual opening tutti and the solo violin enters almost immediately with the distinctive first theme. Only then do we hear the first orchestral tutti. This Allegro molto appassionato is basically in sonata form, with a gentle second theme, but it is a masterstroke to provide a written-out cadenza and to move it back to before the recapitulation. The concerto plays continuously and there is a bassoon link to the lovely C major slow movement, one of Mendelssohn’s songs without words, with a contrasting central section in A minor. A transitional passage in E minor leads to the virtuosic E major sonata-rondo finale, in which the soloist must play with exceptional speed and lightness, so that the effect is akin to Mendelssohn’s fairy music in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It concludes with a brilliant coda.

David gave the premiere on March 13, 1845 in Leipzig with the Danish composer Niels Gade conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra because Mendelssohn was ill. It was not until 23 October that the composer himself conducted the work, with David as soloist. At another Leipzig subscription concert on October 3, 1846, the 15-year-old Joseph Joachim played the concerto for the first time under Gade’s direction, to great acclaim.

When Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst performed it at the Hanover Square Rooms in London on July 2, 1849 with Julius Benedict conducting, the critic of The Times wrote: ‘[it] is perhaps, with the exception of Beethoven’s concerto in D, the most perfect work for the violin and orchestra that the art possesses’.

Tully Potter

  • Ferdinand David, The Tully Potter Collection
  • Felix Mendelssohn playing to Victoria & Albert, by Carl Rohling, 1900, Lebrecht Music & Arts