Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 2.djvu/314

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302
MENDELSSOHN.
 

offspring, and really have no prototypes. That in a movement bearing the same name as one of Beethoven's most individual creations, and occupying the same place in the piece, he should have been able to strike out so entirely different a path as he did, is a wonderful tribute to his originality. Not less remarkable is the variety of the many Scherzos he has left. They are written for orchestra and chamber, concerted and solo alike, in double and triple time indifferently; they have no fixed rhythm, and notwithstanding a strong family likeness—the impress of the gay and delicate mind of their composer—are all independent of each other. In his orchestral works Mendelssohn's scoring is remarkable not more for its grace and beautiful effect than for its clearness and practical efficiency. It gives the Conductor no difficulty. What the composer wishes to express comes out naturally, and, as already remarked, each instrument has with rare exceptions the passages most suitable to it.

Mendelssohn's love of 'Programme' is obvious throughout the foregoing works. The exquisite imitation of Goethe's picture in the Scherzo of the Octet (p. 258b) is the earliest instance of it; the Overture founded on his Calm sea and Prosperous voyage is another; and as we advance each Overture and each Symphony has its title. He once said, in [1]conversation with F. Schneider on the subject, that since Beethoven had taken the step he did in the Pastoral Symphony, every one was at liberty to follow. But the way in which he resented Schumann's attempt to discover 'red coral, sea monsters, magic castles and ocean caves' in his Melusina [2]Overture shows that his view of Programme was a broad one, that he did not intend to depict scenes or events, but held fast by Beethoven's canon, that such music should be 'more expression of emotion than painting'—mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung als Malerei. Thus he quotes the first few bars of the Hebrides Overture (see p. 264a) not as his recollection of the sound of the winds and the waves, but 'to show how extraordinarily Fingal's cave had affected him'—wie seltsam mir auf den Hebriden zu Muthe geworden ist. True, in the M.N.D. Overture we are said to hear the bray of Bottom in the low G of the Ophicleide; and in the three North Wales caprices (op. 16) we are told of even more minute touches of imitation (see p. 264b); but these, if not imaginary, are at best but jeux d'esprit.

Connected with this tendency to programme is a curious point, namely, his belief in the absolute and obvious 'meaning' of music. 'Notes,' [3]says he, 'have as definite a meaning as words, perhaps even a more definite one,' and he devotes a whole letter to reiterating that music is not too indefinite to be put into words, but too definite; that words are susceptible of a variety of meanings, while music has only [4]one. This is not the place to discuss so strange a doctrine, which, though true to him, is certainly not true to the majority of men, and which obviously rests on the precise force of the word 'to mean' (heissen); but it is necessary to call attention to it en passant.[5]

His great works in chamber music are on a par with those for the orchestra. The Octet, the Quintets, and the 6 Quartets are thoroughly individual and interesting, nothing far-fetched, no striving after effect, no emptiness, no padding, but plenty of matter given in a manner at once fresh and varied. Every bar is his own, and every bar is well said. The accusation which is sometimes brought against them, that they are more fitted for the orchestra than the chamber is probably to some extent well-founded. Indeed Mendelssohn virtually anticipates the charge in his preface to the parts of the Octet, which he desires may be played in a symphonic style; and in that noble piece, as well as in parts of the Quintet in B♭, and of the Quartets in D and F minor, many players have felt that the composer has placed his work in too small a frame, that the proper balance cannot always be maintained between the leading violin and the other instruments, and that to produce all the effect of the composer's ideas they should be heard in an orchestra of strings rather than in a quartet of solo instruments. On the other hand, the P.F. Quartet in B minor and the two P.F. Trios in D minor and C minor have been criticised, probably with some justice, as not sufficiently concertante, that is as giving too prominent a part to the Piano. Such criticism may detract from the pieces in a technical respect, but it leaves the ideas and sentiments of the music, the nobility of the style, and the clearness of the structure, untouched.

His additions to the technique of the Pianoforte are not important. Hiller [6]tells a story which shows that Mendelssohn cared little for the rich passages of the modern school; his own were quite sufficient for him. But this is consistent with what we have just said. It was the music of which he thought, and as long as that expressed his feelings it satisfied him, and he was indifferent to the special form into which it was thrown. Of his Pianoforte works the most remarkable is the set of 17 Serious Variations; but the Fantasia in F♯ minor (op. 28), the 3 great Capriccios (op. 33), the Preludes and Fugues, and several of the smaller pieces, are splendid works too well known to need further mention. The Songs without Words stand by themselves, and are especially interesting to Englishmen on account of their very great popularity in this country. Mendelssohn's orchestral and chamber works are greatly played and much enjoyed here, but it is to his Oratorios, Songs, Songs without Words, and Part-songs, that he owes his firm hold on the mass of the English people. It was some time (see 135a) before the Songs without Words reached the public; but when once they became

  1. Schubring, 374b, note.
  2. L. Jan. 30. 1836. The reference is to an article in the N.M.Z. When asked what he meant by this overture he once replied 'Hm, une mesalliance.'
  3. L. Genoa, July 1831.
  4. L. Oct. 15, 1842, to Souchay; and compare that to Frau von Pereira, Genoa. July 1831.
  5. Mrs. Austin (Fraser's Mag., April 1848) relates that he said to her on one occasion 'I am going to play something of Beethoven's, but you must tell them what it is about; what is the use of music if people do not know what it means?' She might surely have replied, 'What then, is the use of the imagination?
  6. H. 164, 155.