Mendelssohn at 200

Sonata in A major, Op. 65, No. 3 — Con moto maestoso,  Andante tranquillo

Prelude and Fugue in G major, Op. 37, No.2

Sonata in f minor, Op. 65, No. 1 —Allegro moderato e serioso, Adagio, Andante. Recitativo, Allegro assai vivace

A lot of “serious” musicians dislike Mendelssohn. (They also dislike Tchaikovsky, even though he writes a better waltz than Strauss.) I like them both. They are consummate musical craftsmen, they are brilliant in their use of the orchestra, they are perfectly adept at all the skills of counterpoint, and they write good melodies.

Mendelssohn seems to have been disliked because he was Jewish. (Will anti-Semitism ever disappear?) He seems to have been disliked because he came from wealth. (Will envy ever disappear?) He also seems to have been disliked because, it is said, music came easily to him. (It is odd that we do not castigate Mozart for that reason. Indeed, more generous commentators have hailed Mendelssohn as the Mozart of the 19th century.)

Two factors come together in Mendelssohn’s organ music. The first is that, in his spare time, Mendelssohn became a champion of Bach whose music had fallen into virtual oblivion by the early nineteenth century. The second is that despite their Jewish provenance, Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny were baptised into the church. Mendelssohn espoused Christianity with considerable fervour, and became well versed in the traditions of German church music, in particular the use of chorales. The Six Organ Sonatas were commissioned by the London publishing firm, Coventry and Hollier, who asked Mendelssohn to compose “three voluntaries” for organ. “Voluntary” is a peculiarly English term and in the correspondence Mendelssohn confessed to not knowing what it meant. (He is not alone!) His ultimate response was not three pieces, but six.

The first movement of the A major sonata is a sort of chorale fantasia on “Aus tiefer Not, schrei ich zu dir” (“Out of the deep I call to thee”), a metrical version of Psalm 130. The noble opening, however, seems to have no thematic connection with the chorale although it does provide the musical seeds from which grow the counter-melodies surrounding the chorale in the subsequent fugal treatment. It is in fugal style and procedure that we discover more of Mendelssohn’s mastery. The Organ Sonatas contain no examples of Sonata Form per se and, indeed, do not even follow the standard four-movement sonata pattern established, for example, in the piano works of Mozart. The A major Sonata contains just two movements – the large-scale opening already referred to, and an elegant but brief Andante tranquillo bringing the work to a subdued close. This Sonata was originally intended to be the first of the six, and it is possible that all six were intended to be played as one work.

The Three Preludes and Fugues were dedicated to Thomas Attwood Walmisley, organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where Mendelssohn was a frequent visitor and where he performed. Each of the three is quite distinct; the only formulaic trait being that each contains a fugue, and that each fugue therefore contains a fugal exposition. That in G major calls for a more subdued registration than its c minor and d minor companions, and might be viewed as chamber music for the organ.

With the f minor Sonata we revert to a grander musical gesture. The opening movement alternates fugal and quasi-fugal passages with relatively subdued references to the chorale “Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh’ allzeit” (“What my God wills, will happen always”). The second movement is of similar elegance to the slow movement of the A major Sonata and the G major Prelude, all of which would be admirably suited to performance by a string quartet. The third movement is a dialogue between various departments of the organ leading directly to the closing Allegro which is virtuosic display pure and simple (sic.)

Mendelssohn’s organ music pays reverence to Bach in its use of chorales as well as forms and textures traditionally associated with the instrument. At the same time, in its use of more advanced chromatic harmony, and in its technical demands, it paves the way for what was to come much later from the pens of people like Rheinberger and Reger.