Felix Mendelssohn composed with a combination of the ideas of control and restraint from the Classical Era and the imagination and creativity that characterized the Romantic Era. Many of his compositions are light and focus on the fanciful aspect of Romanticism.
Mendelssohn shares some similarities with Mozart. He was considered a child prodigy, often playing complex works by memory. His music is refined and elegant, often composed with few edits. Sadly, Mendelssohn also died at a young age, leaving us to wonder what a more experienced version of the composer would have left for us to enjoy.
Mendelssohn was largely responsible for the resurgence of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach when he conducted Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829. Bach’s work had fallen into obscurity and likely would have remained there were it not for Mendelssohn.
Listening – Flute Related
Italian Symphony in A, Opus 90 – Movement 4, Saltarello
The Saltarello from the Italian Symphony combines two rural Italian dance forms – the saltarello and the tarantella, both of which are light and highly energetic dances. This movement opens with a quick articulated flute duet of the main theme, which is a favorite excerpt used for flute orchestra auditions. Notice the overall lightness of sound throughout this movement, which makes the louder, punctuated sections even more pronounced.
Midsummer Night’s Dream
Mendelssohn composed the Overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was 17 years old – he was reading Shakespeare’s play with his sister, Fanny. King Frederick William commissioned Mendelssohn to expand upon the overture, resulting in one of Mendelssohn’s best known works. The Wedding March from Midsummer Night’s Dream is often used in weddings today.
Mendelssohn’s gift of light-hearted imagination sparkles throughout the entire work – we will listen to the Overture and the Scherzo.
Overture from Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream starts and ends with 4 of the most iconic chords in western music – played by woodwinds and dominated by the flute color. The chords give way to the sound of crickets at night before it explodes with exuberant playfulness. I am always in a better mood after listening to this Overture – I hope you are too!
Notice the eye contact between the two flutists at the beginning of the movement. A large part of playing in an ensemble is that sort of communication with your peers.
Scherzo from Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Scherzo (literally translated means “joke”) depicts the fairies in the story and particularly Puck and the mischief he creates. This movement ends in one of the more difficult flute solos in the orchestral literature – one that is often used for auditions in major orchestras.
Violin Concerto in e minor, Opus 64
Mendelssohn’s violin concerto is one of his “heavier” Romantic works. It includes lush harmonies, full orchestration, and long melodic phrases interspersed in virtuosic passages. The third movement returns to some of the light and playful sounds that we are used to hearing from Mendelssohn.
Since the range of the flute is similar to the violin, flutists often adapt and perform violin solos. This video is expertly performed by flutist Jasmine Choi.
Mendelssohn was inspired to compose his Hebrides Overture while on a tour of the Isle of Mull in the Scottish Highlands. Hebrides Overture is an example of the Romantic Era‘s stand alone concert overture. This overture is sometimes named Fingal’s Cave but was actually composed before Mendelssohn saw Fingal’s Cave.
Video: Hebrides Overture
Symphony #3 in a minor, Op 56, Scottish Symphony
Mendelssohn kept a detailed journal of his Scottish travels and intended from the beginning of the trip to compose a symphony based on his experiences. The Scottish Symphony was completed over a decade after his trip. His journal contains some insight to the opening moments of this symphony:
In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; a little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door; up this way they came and found Rizzio in that little room, pulled him out, and three rooms off there is a dark corner, where they murdered him. The chapel close to it is now roofless; grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything around is broken and mouldering, and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.