One of the most recorded and performed violin concertos going, and a must-learn piece for aspiring solo violinists, Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto is arguably unrivalled in its popularity. Whether you've listened to it one or 100 times, here are six things you should know about it…
1. It is his most famous violin concerto, but not his first.
If you hear someone mention ‘Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto’, you can be pretty sure they’re talking about the Concerto in E minor, premiered in 1845. But some twenty years earlier, the then twelve-year-old Mendelssohn started work on a Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra in D minor. This earlier concerto was ‘rediscovered’ and recorded in 1951 by Yehudi Menuhin.
2. It was dedicated to his childhood friend, Ferdinand David.
When Mendelssohn became conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835, he appointed as Leader his childhood friend Ferdinand David. A few years later, he wrote to David: ‘I should like to write a violin concerto for you next winter’. David was essential to the composition of the concerto, regularly giving Mendelssohn advice, particularly as the composer wasn’t a violinist himself!
3. It took Mendelssohn six years to write it.
Even though Mendelssohn first started working on his idea for a violin concerto in 1838, it took him another six years to complete it. In that time, he managed to produce an entire symphony: Symphony No 3, the ‘Scottish’ Symphony.
4. It was an innovation of its time.
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto departed from the ‘norms’ of previous Classical concerto-writing in several ways: the solo violin comes in with the melody almost immediately (typically the orchestra would have played the melody before the soloist entered); the cadenza is written out (instead of leaving it to the soloist to improvise); and the soloist even plays the accompaniment sometimes while the orchestra takes over the melody – look out for the soloist’s bow skipping across the strings in what are called ricochet arpeggios.
5. It purposely leaves no room for applause between movements.
Another innovation of its time – all three movements of the concerto play straight into each other without a break. Audiences at the time were used to clapping between movements, something which Mendelssohn didn’t like and found distracting, so he left no room for applause in his concerto. He may even be responsible, at least in part, for sparking the trend of no applause between movements (though that’s a much-debated topic).
6. It influenced many a future violin concerto.
Tchaikovsky and Sibelius both wrote concertos with cadenzas in ‘untraditional’ places, as Mendelssohn had demonstrated by placing the cadenza before the recapitulation (the repeat of the original theme that appears towards the end of the first movement). Many composers also adopted the idea of writing out the cadenza – leaving it up to the soloist to improvise became very rare.
About Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto
Mendelssohn began work on his Violin Concerto in 1838. He wrote it for his long-term friend Ferdinand David, the Leader of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, of which Mendelssohn was Principal Conductor. Due to the composer’s hectic schedule, it took six years to compose. It received a successful premiere in Leipzig on 13 March 1845 with David as soloist, and has remained popular ever since. It was Mendelssohn’s last substantial work with orchestra.
The Concerto contains several unusual features for its time: the opening melody is introduced by the soloist rather than the orchestra; the first movement cadenza is written out in full; and there are no breaks between movements. The first movement – Allegro appassionato – contrasts a passionate opening theme with a more meditative second one for high woodwind, which the soloist joins. The second movement – Andante – opens and closes with an exquisitely lyrical C major violin melody; its central section, in A minor, is stormier, and features double-stopping for the violin. The final movement – Allegretto briefly recalls the concerto’s opening, before orchestral fanfares lead into the exuberantly playful finale. Here, the delicate textures and rapid pace may remind listeners of the fairy music from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1843).
Note by Kate Hopkins
From Sunday 15 November, watch a video of soloist Alina Ibragimova performing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto on our YouTube channel, recorded live at LSO St Luke's on 5 November as part of our Autumn 2020 season.
> Watch on YouTube (available from Sunday 15 November)