Unspooky Mendelssohn


A philharmonic performance on October 31 and no spooky music on the roster? That's like a steaming cup of Talk Soup without a Jerry Springer clip! What is this world coming to? The philharmonic will be performing excerpts from L'Arlesienne Ballet Suites by Bizet, a French composer from the late 1800's. The French are scary, right? Well, how about music that was inspired by a failed suicide attempt? Leave it to Tchaikovsky (sounds just like it's spelled) to turn such a potentially gruesome subject into a lush, beautiful symphony.

The year was 1876 and Pete Tchaikovsky had decided it was time for him to get married. Not knowing a lot of women, he married a former student who had been after his Russian bones for three years. Their marriage lasted about a year and was very unhappy for both involved, mainly because Tchaikovsky had a preference for the male gender, which was a crime punishable by exile to Siberia in those days. After his marriage failed, he waded into a river hoping to catch pneumonia, which gave him a slight cold and nothing more (he should have tried River Kervorkia just outside of Moscow). But out off all this emotional turmoil, he created a masterpiece of lyrical, albeit melancholy, melodies and rich tonal colors that celebrate life even in the midst of the cruel hand of fate. Once you hear this, his fourth symphony, you will understand why this is one of the most beloved symphonies of all time.
More on Tchaikovsky

About the spookiest thing I can say about the last piece (and this is a stretch so bear with me) is that it is on side B of a record whose side A contains Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D minor which has a melody that was used in a Halloween record from my youth where the car runs out of gas during a storm and this guy has to go into a haunted house andů Scared yet? Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born in 1810 in Hamburg, Germany. His father was a banker, which is part of the problem. Conductor Hans von Bulow has said that Mendelssohn began as a genius and ended as a talent. Indeed, the lad began composing very early in life, writing a whopping thirteen symphonies before he turned 20! Usually, earlier compositions sound, well, juvenile. But Barthy's early music had a very mature sound. Like Mozart, music came to him fully formed and he wrote it down without the need for a first (or second or third) draft. He was able to carry on a conversation while writing music (I wonder what Miss Manners would say to this?). One of a select few, Felix achieved fame and fortune while still alive. During his entire life, he never lacked money, praise, or support. As a result, he didn't know much of pain and longing, and his music never grew. The music he wrote at the end of his life sounds very much like the music he wrote at the beginning. This is not to imply that the music he wrote is anything less than wonderful, but you just gotta wonder what he could have written if for once he woke up and had to toast his own frozen waffles.

One of the pieces Mr. Barth is known for is the wedding march. You've heard it a bazillion times. Perhaps you've even slow-stepped down the aisle to it yourself. Well, this is the guy who wrote it. It was originally written as background music for a Shakespeare play but now it is most often heard just after the words "you may kiss the bride". For a while, Mendelssohn's first piano concerto was the most performed piano concerto of all time! Hector Berlioz (another Frenchman, but one who composed some genuinely spooky music about witch dances and heads getting lopped off) went around telling of a piano at the Paris Conservatory that was so used to playing this particular Mendelssohn concerto that it continued to play the music even if no one was touching the keys! The local piano-maker, so the story goes, tried everything to make the piano stop: holy water, chopping up the keys with an axe, playing David Hasselhoff records, and finally throwing the beast out the window! That Berlioz was such a cut-up! But back to Mr. Mendelssohn. It makes sense that his music was so popular. Like Mozart's, his melodies stick in your head after the very first listen (then they set up residence and stay awhile whether you want them there or not! The only known cure is to scour them away with a healthy dose of Ives, who, by the way, wrote a piece called "Halloween".)

Bartholdy got the idea for this piece when he was a mere lad of 28. He wrote to a friend that it "runs in my head, the beginning of which gives me no peace." Even so, it took him six years to finish it, which is a long time not to have peace. There are many things about this concerto that scream originality (or they did back in 1844 before others copied them). For instance, usually a concerto starts with the orchestra playing a theme for a while and then the solo instrument takes up the melody. Felix wanted something different so he started his concerto with the violin, kinda like putting the guitar solo at the beginning of a song. Also, instead of a polite pause between the movements, he linked them all together to establish a continuity of thought and feeling. Most people wait for this break between movements to cough, sneeze, or shout obscenities, but you'll have to wait a long time with this concerto. It may not sound like a big thing now, this linking the movements together, but neither does side B of Abbey Road. Yes, we have grown jaded by time. The composers intent was to create a work that was easy to play but sounded difficult. I'm not so sure about the "easy to play" part, but the piece is full of charged violin passages and exciting melodies guaranteed to turn aspiring violin players green with envy, which is okay because it's Halloween.

Copyright 1998 Jason Hoffman

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