Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49
In the music of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, from the beginning there is a combination of the heightened imagination typical of Romanticism with creative sensibilities in harmony with Mozartean clarity and economy. The son of a well-to-do townsfolk and the grandson of a great Jewish philosopher, he was a true prodigy like Mozart, and he benefited from not only his extraordinary talent, but also the support of his parents in the form of education and special advantages like the possibility of immediately getting to hear his own compositions played live. He took composition lessons from Carl Friedrich Zelter, a musician who was famous in Berlin at the time, and later he studied with the equally famous teacher Ignaz Moscheles. The instruction Mendelssohn received was artistically conservative, but he admired the late works of Ludwig van Beethoven. He also acquired historical knowledge, and he was the first composer to reflect that particular knowledge his in his music. The facts that his family had adopted the Christian faith and that he was himself a person of sincere Protestant convictions enabled him to take an intense interest in Bach’s music. And so it was that at the age of 20, with the Berlin performance of the St Matthew Passion he rediscovered Bach’s nearly forgotten compositional legacy for his contemporaries. At the same time, Johann Sebastian Bach strongly influenced him as a composer of music for the Protestant church. Ultimately, Bach’s influence is also present in the conceptions of the Biblical oratorios Elijah and St Paul. He quickly became a successful conductor. From 1835 until 1847 he held an important position with the Orchestra of the Leipzig Gewandhaus—he was the fifth chief conductor (Kapellmeister) in its history.
The list of works in the legacy of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy that have a permanent place in the worldwide repertoire begins with music he wrote in his childhood and youth. At age 16 he wrote his still popular Octet for strings, he composed the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was 17 years old, and he wrote 12 little symphonies for strings three years earlier than that. His Songs without Words are some of the best known works of the Romantic piano repertoire; he wrote concertos, the overture The Hebrides, and symphonies, the best known being the Scottish Symphony, Italian Symphony, and Reformation Symphony, in which he achieved a clear and perfect combination of classical form and Romantic emotion. His symphonic works are full of ideas, character, individuality, and mood. Many of Mendelssohn’s works exhibit exuberance in their first movements, in others movements one finds repose and emotional expression, and in the finales energy and liveliness interspersed with calmer episodes. These traits are joined by tenderness, ethereality, poetic inspiration, and lyrical majesty as well as the enchantment of the south of Europe, impressions from England and Scotland, and the spiritual depth of his Christian faith. The Violin Concerto in E minor, which was composed for the violinist Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, was written in close cooperation between the two musicians. The concerto is not only virtuosic and lyrical, but also highly innovative.
Mendelssohn composed three trios for piano, violin, and cello. The first came when he was just 12 years old, but only the two more mature works are numbered. The Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor was completed on the first day of autumn in 1839. Alongside the aforementioned Octet, it became Mendelssohn’s most popular chamber work thanks to its musical beauty. The first movement in classical sonata form with an exposition, development, and recapitulation starts right off without an introduction, and the lyrical main theme is given to the cello. Variations on this material lead to a second theme, also first played by the cello. The second movement is something like a song without words, with the theme in the piano part. The scherzo is short and light-footed, based on the rhythm of the work’s main theme. In the finale, technique is displayed above all by the piano. The movement and therefore the whole composition brightens not long before the end, when the key changes to D major. It is in the fourth movement that one finds the most noticeable changes proposed by the composer Ferdinand Hiller, whom Mendelssohn had asked for critical comments and suggested revisions. Although the changes heightened the music’s Romantic character, in a review of the piano trio Robert Schumann called his colleague Mendelssohn “the Mozart of the 19th century”.