“I would like to compose a violin concerto for next winter. One in E minor keeps running through my head, and the opening gives me no peace,” German composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote to his friend, violinist Ferdinand David, in 1838. Mendelssohn would seek to collaborate on his last orchestral work with David, revising it painstakingly until its premiere in Leipzig in 1845. The first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 4, is considered a staple of the violin repertoire and an example piece of the romantic period.
While Mendelssohn is widely recognized as a romantic who remained loyal mainly to traditional, classical forms, the technical demands of the soloist, the novel placement and qualities of the cadenza, and the features of the overall form illustrate both the novelty of the concerto and why it served as an example for later composers. The concerto is credited with being challenging but manageable in its technical demands of the soloist.
While it contains many intricate techniques, it “plays well under the fingers,” undoubtedly because of Ferdinand David’s input.
Because of this, it is widely used by violin instructors to introduce concerti to students. Its place as an introductory learning tool is held by Mendelssohn’s frequent use of octaves (rehearsal B and K) to lead the player to arrival points such as the high “B” after rehearsal B, seen in Example 1.
Example 1: Varied use of octaves surrounding rehearsal B. The Classical style to which Mendelssohn remained loyal is characterized in technique by his use of ricochet bowing, first developed by Niccolo Paganini, in the chord section immediately following the cadenza after rehearsal letter O.
While many of his strategies were common in the concerto’s time (including accent and tenuto articulations and virtuosic melodic lines), Mendelssohn departs from tradition in his treatment of the ricochet bowing technique.
It is used to accompany an orchestra that reintroduces the theme after the cadenza; this is a reversal of the traditional role of having the soloist recapitulate the main idea. The Mendelssohn concerto is also novel in its treatment of the cadenza. The series of arpeggios in the ricochet bowing style before rehearsal P (or number 13) can be considered an extension of the traditional Classical cadenza played only by the soloist because these are continued after the orchestra re-enters (see Example 2).
Example 2: The orchestra re-enters at rehearsal 13 as the soloist accompanies. Example 2: The orchestra re-enters at rehearsal 13 as the soloist accompanies. In the classical form, such as that used by Mozart in the first movement of his Violin Concerto in A major, KV 219, the cadenza is considered an entirely separate section from the orchestra. Also novel for the concerto’s time is Mendelssohn’s placement of the cadenza between the development and recapitulation sections, as opposed to its usual place at the end of the movement.
Placement at the end can be found in Mozart’s concerto, as well as in the first movement of the Paganini Violin Concerto No. 1 (closed by only a short orchestra section). Another difference from the compositions of Mendelssohn’s predecessors and contemporaries is the fact that, in his careful editing, Mendelssohn wrote out the entire cadenza for the soloist; many classical composers intended for improvisation to be involved, either in keeping with their ideas or as completely new ideas.
This tradition can be seen in the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 1; a cadenza later written by Fritz Kreisler is one of the most commonly performed for Beethoven’s first movement. Other formal features promote the concerto’s position as novel for its time. As a contrast to the traditional “double exposition” classical model, the violin enters at the start with a soaring melody after just two measures of orchestral introduction. The classical model normally contains a full exposition, with the orchestra introducing the main themes before the soloist enters.
In effect, the orchestra and the soloist perform two separate expositions. Although the three movements of the concerto are written in the standard fast-slow-fast structure, distinctive from tradition was Mendelssohn’s decision to create a through-composed form, in which the three movements are connected, or played attacca. At the end of the first movement and into the second, the bassoon’s held note serves as a link between the two, a simple transition to a lyrical second movement.
The technical and formal features of the violin concerto, as compared to Mendelssohn’s education in the classical form, illustrate that the work was innovative for its time. Mendelssohn’s collaboration with Ferdinand David demonstrates the work’s attention to technical detail. Mendelssohn’s careful editing is illustrated by the complete composition of the cadenza, as opposed to one intended for improvisation. The first movement’s novelty in technique and form also serves as an example as to why Mendelssohn was as inspiration to later composers such as Joseph Joachim and William Sterndale Bennett.