Worlds of sensibility
“Musical politics requires that the best things are kept to oneself for a while,” Ludwig van Beethoven wrote to his publisher in 1801, probably referring (also) to his Third Piano Concerto, which was still unperformed at the time. He, the celebrated pianist, did not want to publish the concerto before first playing it himself in front of an audience. That’s why he didn’t even have to write out the solo part for the world premiere – after all, he had it in his head. This in turn caused his page-turner, Mozart’s former pupil Ignaz von Seyfried, to break out in a sweat: He saw “almost nothing but empty leaves; at most, a few [...] Egyptian hieroglyphics scribbled on one or the other side, wholly unintelligible to me; for he played nearly all of the solo part from memory”.
Tribute to Mozart
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in C minor is not least a tribute to Mozart’s piano works in the same key – and above all, a very personal work. Its composition took several years. During this time, Beethoven experienced an at first happy, but ultimately hopeless love affair because of the higher rank of the woman he adored; he suffered from depression, which he described in his Heiligenstadt Testament, and he began to lose his hearing. But in spite of everything, he did not let it get him down: “I will seize fate by the throat; it shall certainly never wholly overcome me.”
The sharply modelled first theme of the concerto runs intriguingly through the C minor triad, almost like the beginning of a manifesto: crotchet by crotchet, so to speak word by word, succinctly formulated. The slow movement carries us off into a harmoniously distant, dreamlike world, another reality. The “blissful moments” Beethoven longed for occur here, moments that were once created by the “enchanting girl”. It is a “stay a while” moment, such as Beethoven – extending the painfully sweet sensation to infinity – rarely allowed in his music. And after many a musical struggle with fate, the hopeful C major prevails at the end of the finale.
In search of his own sound
Felix Mendelssohn also follows a path from C minor to C major in his First Symphony (twelve preceding string symphonies were not included in the official count). He of course knew the famous examples of Mozart and Beethoven – although it must be remembered that these were not classics of music history, but contemporary music. After all, when the 15-year-old Mendelssohn wrote this symphony in early 1824, Beethoven’s Ninth had not yet even been premiered.
As can be expected, Mendelssohn plays with what he admires in his predecessors, lets the melody in the minuet reach beyond the underlying triple time, sometimes quotes certain motivic turns (a figure that shifts between two harmonies which he has picked up from Mozart’s G minor Symphony No. 40, even twice, in the first and fourth movements), and in the demanding part writing in the fugato of the finale, shows how skilfully he masters his craft.
Young musical avant-garde
But even at this young age, he is concerned with much more: finding his own sound, an expression of the sensibility of his time. This was no longer the revolutionary pathos of a Beethoven, but an age that was outwardly marked by the Restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Rather, it looked inward, it was fascinated by the supernatural, and found the depths of the human soul in eerie natural phenomena. This is what the enchanting second theme of the finale sounds like: only plucked strings at first, then a clarinet melody, as if from another world. The fact that Mendelssohn – quite innovatively – also links all movements motivically demonstrates that he was not primarily a Classicist, but at least as much an exponent of a young musical avant-garde.
Translation: Innes Wilson