Friday, September 18, 2009

About Those Essays

There have been a lot of questions about the essays.

First of all, choosing your topic:

This should be something that interests you, relates to you, expresses something that you've learned about Mendelssohn or his music, the historical or biographical background or how something you've learned about something almost 200 years old relates to you today. It could be about listening to or watching the musicians perform the music last Wednesday. It could be about the experience of hearing this music.

You can choose a topic that might relate to you but you might also find something that someone in your parents' or grandparents' generation might be able to give you some perspective on your topic. Ask them some questions and tie that in with what you know first-hand and what you've learned about Mendelssohn, his music and his times through this project.

We're not looking for a biographical summary that just parrots back facts you've read. Incorporate those facts and your observations about the project into something about what YOU learned or experienced.

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You can use "Mendelssohn's World" as your resource. Use the "study question" posts on the blog to help you find a topic that "fits" you if you're having trouble thinking of one.

To find information by topic, see the upper right-hand column for links to specific topics (biography, music, issues &c) then use the "search" field within the blog to find reference to key words you're looking for.

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The essay's “format.”

Even though this isn't a “language arts” project, treat it as if it is, using all the skills you would if you were writing an essay for that class.

The individual teachers can set their own parameters and guide-lines about the technical format.

It should be 2 pages long, but if it goes a little over, that's okay (it depends on what you have to say).

Each essay will be labeled with the student's name and grade, the name of the class and the teacher's name.

The individual teachers set the schedule, whether they require “internal deadlines” for selection of topic, submission of rough-draft and so on.

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All the essays should be done and turned in to the individual teachers by or before Friday, October 2nd, 2009. Once the teachers have gone through the essays, then they submit the ones they feel are the best from each class by or before Friday, October 9th, 2009. Then Odin Rathnam and I (perhaps asking for input from some of the teachers) will select the best of those.

The winner will receive a $250 scholarship prize. And we'll submit the top essays to MOSAIC, the school's literary journal, for publication in the end-of-the-school-year edition.

Thanks, and good luck!

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Study Questions #7: Listening to Music

Here are the "Study Questions" Ms. Robbins wrote up for Mendelssohn’s World.

Musical Qualities

In addition to the musical issues that Dr. Strawser has raised, I would like you to think about the following questions.

Please observe carefully at the concert.

Watch and listen to what the musicians do. (Use SHMRG or something like it - see this post)

Pay attention to the details that you see and hear. You may use this sheet and/or the listening guide organizer to take notes for your essay if you like. (two sides to this page)

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1. - What makes this a “fine art”? How do the performers and the music differ from pop music or other folk music forms? How do you think they might have similarities?

2. - How does the music express itself? Is it merely the notes and their loudness, or are there different ways to play them?

3. - What provides contrast? What is the same (unity)? What is different (variety)?

4. - Can you recognize the structure of the music? If we hear a tune, call that A, then hear A again, and then something new we call B. Many structures are AABA, ABA, ABACAD, etc. Can you analyze the structure of your favorite song?

5. - In what ways does the composer create? In other words, what tools are used to create a musical work of art? If a painter uses color, shading, texture, medium, etc. then what does a composer use?

6. - How do you think the composer communicates through two centuries how the performers today should play the music?

Fun with SHMRG

When I was teaching in college, my students often asked what they were supposed to listen for and I said “anything you hear.”

How do you learn to hear something? Well, that sounds obvious – you listen – but sometimes there's so much to listen for, you don't know where to begin. And if you don't know that much about the technical aspects of music, you can easily be intimidated.

Here's a way you can “break this down” to get started. This is better to do when you're listening to a recording that sitting at the concert, but mentally you make notes too about certain things. What's great about this method is, the more you know about music the more you can write down or the more specific you can be; if you don't have that much experience listening to music – and I mean ANY kind of music – your observations will be more generic but you can still notice things.

It was really cool that while I was writing this up, Ms. Robbins, one of the school district's music teachers, sent out a diagram of things you can listen for and discuss when listening to a piece of music. It's very similar to what I was using with my students years ago.

So take a piece of paper and right these letters

S – H – M – R – G

in different parts of the page – leave yourself enough space in between to write several random observations.

What do these letters mean?

S = SOUND which means what kind of sounds do you hear? With 8 string players, talking about what instruments are playing is fairly easy, but at some points you might focus on the first violinist (Odin Rathnam) or another of the players: what are they doing that caught your attention?

Sound also means “how is this sound created?” What is the TEXTURE like – are all the instruments playing, just a few, maybe only one or two? Is the sound “thick” or “thin” sounding? That's texture.

H = HARMONY which basically means how notes are put together to make chords and how chords move from one to another to create different moods: are they moving slowly or rapidly? What kind of feeling do you get from that? Is it creating a relaxed atmosphere or is it very energetic or unstable? For musicians, you could notice if the chords are more vertically oriented – like chords you'd play on the piano – or are they the result of different parts moving horizontally in such a way that chords are created out of the different lines they're playing together (this is also called “counterpoint).

Of course, by the time you write something down, the music keeps going and you may look back later and have no idea where in the music was that thought you just wrote down! Don't worry. Music moves forward in time: it's not like a picture you can look at in your own time and stare at one item for a while before moving on to the next. Music moves at its own speed – fast or slow – but you have to go with the flow!

M = MELODY which is usually what people listen for. Not everything HAS a melody and not all melodies are “tunes” you can hum or sing along with. Sometimes “melody” is just the most prominent line which could be in the top part or in the bottom part.

Melody is also made up of fragments, like I'd said: you have a note, you take several notes and make a word out of them – these are MOTIVES and you can build melodies out of these. These might be “recognizable gestures” you'll notice when they come back. Sometimes they come back in places you might not expect, not always in the fore-ground. Maybe it's in the middle-ground or the back-ground.

You can also jot down ideas about the shape of these main motives – maybe a line that represents the shape of the music: in the opening of the Octet, the first violin plays a rising line that contains three fragments. You might draw a short rising line, separated by a small space, then a higher rising line, another 'breath' and the one more rising line that expands into a descending squiggle. How often does that “shape” come back as you continue listening?

R = RHYTHM. Everybody knows what “rhythm” is but you don't need drums to have rhythm (they do make it easier, though!). In the Overture to “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” Mendelssohn has several melodic ideas that are different from one another by their rhythms – if not the exact patterns of short and long notes, then a sense of how the notes are grouped together. Are all the notes bustling along really fast? Are there notes that sound slower (for musicians, the difference between eighth-notes and half-notes)? Do these set up patterns you can recognize when you hear them again?

G = GROWTH which means how things grow. If you look at a seed, you have no idea what it's going to look like when it's full grown. Even after a few sprouts, you can't always be sure what the flower or the leaves will look like later on. Music is the same way: when a piece starts, do you know what the whole thing is going to be like? No, unless you've heard it before and really know it well. Even then, there might be things – small details – you'll pick up on another hearing that you didn't notice before. Have you ever walked past a familiar place and suddenly something catches your eye? “Oh, I hadn't seen that before.” But it was probably there all along.

This is where you might notice these “small details” of how a melody is put together, taking a musical “word” and turning it into a musical motive that you hear again and again. Is it different from before? Is it the same or maybe only slightly different? How does the composer make it sound different? If it sounds REALLY different, is there something about it that kind of sounds like the earlier one did? Is this a complete contrast? What impact does this contrast have: does it change the mood, increase the drama, make it sound like another character in the scene has just walked into view?

One of the basic concepts of music is “UNITY” and “VARIETY.” How does a composer use either one? What does this do to the overall sense you're getting from the music?

A lot of these ideas will give you “small building blocks” which can be put together to make “larger building blocks.” What you have might be like starting with a single brick, but eventually you start seeing how these bricks can make a wall that, when you get a chance to see it, is actually the side of a house. How does a brick house look different than a wooden one? How does an apartment building look different than your school building or the State Capitol? How does something built 5 years ago look compared to something built over 100 years ago? These are elements of “growth” - how you develop a larger sense of “FORM” and how the surface differs from piece to piece. But just like those houses and buildings, no matter what they look like to you or how big they are or what they're used for, they all have similar things in common: they're built out of small things, they have walls, a roof, windows and doors. Different kinds of music can have the similar kinds of things in common but yet be completely different in how they sound to you.

There's another one I left out – I guess it would be T for TEXT (or W for WORDS). Since a lot of music, especially “pop culture music,” sets words – even though a lot of classical music is just instrumental – you can also jot down ideas about the words they're singing. More importantly, how does the rest of the music – what accompanies the words – get across what the words mean (or imply)?

Even if there isn't a text that's being sung, maybe it's part of a movie or TV show's scene that's telling a story or serving as background to a dialog. How does the music help the scene? What would the scene be like without the music? Are you even aware there WAS music in that scene?

So when you're done with your SHMRG, you'll have a mess of rambling observations but maybe, as you think about it, it begins to give you an idea of what you're listening to.

Try it with music you're familiar with – take your favorite song and really “listen” to it (don't just “hear” it). If there's something you really like, what is it that makes it like that? How do all these different details that make up a song help you enjoy it? Can you SHMRG a rap song or a country ballad? Sure – try it!

And the next time you find yourself listening to something you don't like at first, rather than sitting there being bored with it, try SHMRG-ing it and see what kind of things you discover in the music. It may help you realize, “hey, there's something here, after all.”

- Dr. Dick

Photos from the West Branch Music Festival

This past Sunday, Odin Rathnam and the members of the West Branch Music Festival performed Mendelssohn's Octet at the West Branch Resort, located on the West Branch of the Delaware River in New York State. It's the "Gateway to the Catskills."

And they'll be playing for you on Wednesday at the John Harris High School in Harrisburg.

Here are some photos a friend of Odin's, Michele Conrad, took at a rehearsal and at the performance (posted w/her permission).

This is the complete Octet during the performance at the lodge.
But behind every performance is a lot of individual practice time and group rehearsal time. Here are some rehearsal moments. Notice how they look at each other to "communicate" and coordinate what they're playing.

Rehearsing can be serious - this is probably one of the hard parts.

But it can also be lots of fun. Even at its most serious, if it's not fun, they wouldn't be in this business.

In an earlier post, I said that Mendelssohn wrote this when he was 16 as a birthday present to his violin teacher and his teacher was playing the first violin part at that first performance in 1825. Odin said, "it very hard - it's like playing a concerto" which means he's in the spotlight a lot. But I told him he's playing the part of Mendelssohn's teacher and the student had wanted to give the teacher something to play that would make him work! Mendelssohn played the 2nd Viola part in that performance and it must have been fun for him to watch his teacher sweat.

Well, here's Odin breaking a sweat! It's hard work!

Here's a shot of all eight players in a rehearsal.

It's a beautiful spot along the West Branch - they'll be performing another concert there this weekend, too.

- Dr. Dick

Friday, September 11, 2009

Another Way of Listening to "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

There are several ways to listen to a piece of music: you can listen to it because you like it (or because you were told to...); you can listen to it to hear what you like about it (“oh, that's the hee-haw bit”) or you can listen to it critically as a performance (“they didn't play that very well, there” or “I like how they got a little more dramatic here”); you can listen for the enjoyment you get out of it (“this part makes me sad; that part makes me smile”) or you can listen to it recognizing which section of the music represents which characters in the story (“there's the 'fairy music' again”). Or you could make up your own story using it as a sound-track for your imagination (“I hear the space aliens scattering as the space-ship lands here and they're cautious about approaching it when the door suddenly opens – at 1:15 – and out come the astronauts...”).

You can also listen to it “technically.” A music student might listen more technically than a non-music student (I hate that term, like you're majoring in non-music...) so you might call the technical details different things, depending on your familiarity with the jargon (“sounds like it's getting ready for something new here at 2:06” as opposed to “yes, the transition between the closing idea as it modulates to the dominant key”).

Let's listen to it, now, with these pointers, thinking of it more abstractly (but using the “character references” as tags). Think also how Mendelssohn gives each of his musical ideas a kind of “personality profile” so you can recognize them when you hear them again.

0:00 Opening chords – sustained in woodwinds, suspended animation? The mood shifts between one chord (in winds at 0:20) and when the strings play it (at 0:27). For music students, this is a shift between an E Major chord (winds) and an E Minor chord (strings).

0:27 – First “Theme” - the fairy music - more a sound and texture than a melody – strings scurrying...
0:49 – again
0:56 – a chord interrupts (“looking around”?), a sound associated with the opening chords
1:06 – after pausing, the 1st Theme resumes, as if starting over but now expands...
1:15 – suddenly we hear a 2nd Idea (will it be the 2nd Theme?) - what contrast do you hear here – volume, rhythm, shape of the melody? Sounds like the two mortal couples have burst in on the fairy's scene...
1:29 – a new rhythmic idea (or “word”) that gives it new energy
1:46 – it's the fairy music from the 1st Theme but how is it different, now?
2:06 – it begins to fragment and sounds like it's going somewhere...
2:13 – and arrives here – it's a more lyrical theme, associated with the two mortal couples who are having relationship issues: perhaps the mood of the music represents their love? Technically, this is the “real” 2nd Theme (not the 2nd musical idea, though, we've had several of those, like “words” in a sentence; this is a new paragraph). But it's only the first part of it: the woodwinds ask a question which...
2:20 – is answered by the strings (remember this, we'll hear it often as an independent idea or “word”) So the 2nd Theme is made up of two distinct short “phrases”
2:34 – it begins again but instead of doing it the same way, things start to expand in length
2:44 – a fanfare figure is added that interrupts the original lyrical mood of 2nd Theme (from 2:13-2:34) – there is a variation on the “phrase” from 2:20 added here (a little variety out of a little unity)
3:02 – sounds like it's going to start going somewhere... then arrives here, suddenly:
3:09 – the thumping bass notes begin the theme associated with the comic actors who will try to put on a play of their own. While they're strutting about, rehearsing, they are “attacked” by Puck who gives their leader, Bottom by name, the head of a donkey (a play on the old expression, “making an ass out of him”) – embedded in this theme are musical gestures that reflect the hee-haws, the braying of donkey!
3:20 – this rowdy theme is countered by a rising gesture
3:32 – we hear the fanfares we'd heard back at 2:44 – do they sound different here?
3:40 – the 2nd Theme returns but with more of the fanfares – which increases the tension and arrives at...
3:57 – the return of 1st Theme or the Fairy Music – it starts off sounding very similar but then starts going off in different directions... where's it headed, after 4:03?
4:13 – it becomes more unstable: how is Mendelssohn making it less stable? What does something like the low sounds you hear at 4:18 do for the stability?
4:20 – more fanfares with the 1st Theme Fairy Music in the background – what do the isolated sustained tones in the horn do for the music's stability at 4:32... 4:39 and 4:45?
4:56 – sounds like something new: a pattern in the winds (rising up by one note, then falling back) with rumblings in the lower strings
5:06 to 5:25 – things have gotten kind of hushed – one voice is moving downward while another voice is moving gradually upwards... where's it going? Stable or unstable?
5:25 – it becomes a little smoother but still sounds questioning...
5:40 – the music is interrupted by a “pleading” line, as if one of the lovers is on his or her knees asking for understanding or forgiveness – where does it come from? It's actually a variation on the “answer” part of the 2nd Theme (check out the music at 2:20).

At this point, the first video ends before this resolves. Is it a satisfying ending if you stopped the piece right here?

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Well, that's a lot of stuff going on but it's how Mendelssohn builds six minutes of music out of a few different musical ideas – some are themes, others are just “gestures” like the little fanfares – and the most important (main) theme is really just a scurrying texture of strings representing the mysterious magical world of the fairy sprites who live in these woods.

So far we've had several musical ideas that can be grouped into those basic sections of a SONATA FORM – from the opening's introductory chords to 3:57 is the EXPOSITION... the reworking and fragmenting of some of the material, all mixed up, from 3:57 to the end of the first clip (actually the beginning of the second clip) is the DEVELOPMENT Section. So we'd expect, now, a RECAPITULATION, going back to the opening again to bring everything back together again.

So, let's listen to the 2nd half of the piece in this video clip which picks up just about where the first clip broke off.

- - - - - - -

- - - - - - -

Here, the “pleading” music ends at 0:13 with the sustained chords from the very opening (that “once upon a time” sound) beginning at 0:14. This is what we'd expect: this is what will become the RECAPITULATION (the final “A” in the A-B-A-like form).

0:39 – the 1st theme's fairy music continues as expected but it begins to expand...
1:17 – the 2nd theme comes back – the mortals' love theme – but wait a minute, what happened to the lively “barging-in” music from the mortals we originally heard at 1:16 in the first video clip? It's not here!

There are some other subtle differences here, too: it's not just a run-through of everything we've heard before. But we do hear familiar music – the fanfares, the Comedians' music with hee-haws. And at that point, Mendelssohn could give it a lively ending at 3:40, probably what most composers would've done – it would make people applaud more, after all. Yay! But wait, there's more!

3:40 – instead of wrapping it up, here, he brings back the 1st theme's fairy music again
3:59 – the first time around, those hesitant “looking around” chords are now expanding into something more like the opening's “once-upon-a-time” chords
4:39 – but here's something that sounds familiar: what is it? It's actually the musical idea we heard at 1:16 in the first video which we associate with the mortals barging into the woods: remember how loud and energetic it sounded? How does it sound here?

Remember, the piece if called “A Midsummer Night's DREAM” – are they falling asleep here? Then at 5:24, those magical opening chords come back as if to say “and that's how it ends: was it really just a dream?”

Technically, this is like an added bonus track that composers often use to wrap things up a little more neatly. It's not what we expect so it adds to the enjoyment by being a little more unpredictable: maybe it puts a different “spin” on what we've heard. It's called a “CODA” which is the Italian word for tail, as in the “tail-end.”

When you were children, ever have somebody read you a bed-time story to send you off to sleep? And you fell asleep before it was over? Maybe that's what's happening here: Mendelssohn has finished the story and carefully closes the book so as not to wake you.

- Dr. Dick

Technical Difficulties beyond a Luddite's Control

As it happens (so to speak), one can only count on so many bugs in any given system.

When we began setting this project up, the idea was to post things on a school-based network called (I think) cLc but it wasn't until a few days before school started that I discovered the cLc wasn't available at the high school. So we figured I'd just post anything I wanted to on my blog: material that can be used by both students and teachers.

I was told that students wouldn't have access to YouTube on their school computers because it can be so distracting (tell me about it). But if I posted them on my blog, that should make it easier. I wanted you to be able to see the music, in a way, that would help you familiarize yourself with what you'll be hearing live when these great musicians come in on the 16th to play for you. And also to give you some other things you can listen to just as examples.

Well, on Wednesday, I found out even the embedded videos from YouTube were caught in the security system and you couldn't view them. So I spent a few hours Thursday trying to figure out ways of getting those videos re-posted, downloading some software that refused to install and then discovering once I'd done what they'd told me to do (I think), it still wouldn't work.

Then some of the folks in the I.T. department figured out they could "unblock" some of the YouTube videos but not all (there are, like, 22 of them...). I suggested five that were really good for class viewing.

So check these out in the classroom:

The Octet's 3rd & 4th Movements (you'll hear it live)

The Magic World of Fingal's Cave (which has a video that takes on a tour of the cave and another that plays the piece Mendelssohn composed after he visited the cave 180 years ago)

The Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream (the overture is broken into two videos: I point out where in the timing you can hear certain themes that describe different characters in the play)

My apologies for the unexpected problems (this has become a learning experience for the teachers and myself, as well) and for the irony that we lost some time because I thought my e-mails had gone through when in fact most of them got caught in the school system's spam-filter :-\

My thanks to Ms. Lehmer and Mr. Applegate in I.T. for their help in getting around the glitches (I was calling it SnaFi which is kind of like wi-fi technology but with snafus) and also to Ms. Robbins, Mr. Askey and Ms. Botel for their additional support in all this.

And my thanks also to all the teachers and the students who are bravely going into this project and hopefully discovering something about some music that's been around for a long time, long before this technology I've been having trouble with ever existed...

- Dick Strawser (a.k.a. Dr. Dick, Luddite)

Music as a Language: Putting it Together, Note by Note

Music is often called “a universal language” even though it's not a language you would speak. Because it can communicate without words, it often connects with people around the world who might not be able to talk to one another but it could still be understood.

The only problem is, what the music “means” is another thing – it's not as direct as spoken language and so it doesn't translate into anything really specific. You can't come up with a musical equivalent of “What is the answer to Test Question #4” that will get you the answer you're looking for. But if you want to comfort someone, if you want to inspire someone, if you want to make some kind of emotional connection with someone who doesn't speak your language, chances are music may be a good way to start.

Of course, if you use words with music – and most popular music is vocal: songs that set words to music and then is sung – it may communicate better. But if someone who's living in Cairo doesn't speak English, they're still not going to know exactly what those words mean. And vice-versa.

If people know the story of Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in whatever language they speak, I think they'll “get” the meaning behind Mendelssohn musical work inspired by it.

If people can appreciate the Octet for Strings, they can do it whether they speak German, English, Spanish or Vietnamese – and everybody can sit in the same room and enjoy the music together even if they're able to talk to each afterward.

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However, there's another way I like to think of music as a language.

A language is based on sounds that are written down. A writer uses letters, a composer uses notes. A writer strings letters together to create words; a composer strings notes together to create musical motives or ideas, like the opening of Beethoven's 5th. (They can also be bunched together to make chords, a dimension that spoken language or writing cannot achieve).

You can put words together. This is called a sentence.

You can do the same thing with notes. This could be a melody.

You can also just keep stringing words together to make longer and longer sentences but they can start getting out of hand not making a lot of sense especially if you don't use any punctuation so the voice never knows where one idea stops and another one begins because then I went and had lunch and slept through math class the sky is really cloudy today and now I'm rally in trouble because like don't you get the same kind of feeling I have no idea where this is going.

If you had a melody like that – one that doesn't go anywhere or has no shape to it – it would drive a listener up a wall. Writing a sentence like that won't earn you any points in English class, either.

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Sentences can also then be strung together to make paragraphs. There are many ways you can do this, and you can create a sense of style depending on how you use your words and sentences, how you choose your vocabulary, how you write so the reader's “inner voice” rises or falls with the line – these are similar to ways that composers would write a musical line and indicate how musicians would perform it.

So, if combining letters creates words which in combination creates phrases and sentences and paragraphs, you can think of notes creating musical ideas which combine to create melodies (or something comparable – it may not be a real whistleable “tune”) which has a kind of musical punctuation called a “cadence” which could either be a comma or a period – or maybe a colon, semi-colon or dash. Whatever.

In fact, in music a phrase that ends in a comma answered by a phrase that ends more conclusively with a period is actually called a “period.”

You can put some periods together to create the equivalent of a musical paragraph. This would be a “section.”

Sections combined to create larger sections which, the more they grow, can form a complete piece. A song might be fairly simple and be over in less than three minutes. A symphony, concerto or a string quartet could be more complex, have three or four separate movements and could take a half hour or more to perform. Some symphonies can be 45 minutes or longer – Gustav Mahler wrote one that's about 90 minutes long!

Just like in music, writers can keep stringing these “paragraphs” together, too, until they end up with an essay, a short story or book. Some books might be 45 pages long and have maybe 5 or 10 chapters. How long is Herman Melville's “Moby Dick” and how many chapters does it have? Marcel Proust wrote a novel that's published in separate volumes – seven, originally, though usually in three volumes that would make great doorstops – and in all consists of some 3,200 pages! (The man would never be happy on Twitter!)

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You can create forms in words or music that are like rules in a game: there are procedures you can use that create different results. That's what makes the difference in card games, whether you're playing solitaire, cribbage or poker. It's like figuring out the patterns and sequences of patterns you need to know in order to play certain video games: by mastering them, you attain a higher level.

Music can work the same way. So can poetry.

There are many ways of grouping words, phrases and sentences to create a poem. There are different kinds of poems: some are defined by mood, others by structure.

The simplest poetic structure would probably be the couplet with two lines that rhyme. Or you can have four lines called a quatrain with alternating lines that rhyme. You can combine quatrains into longer strings to create more free-flowing poems.

Or you can have a longer, more involved form like the sonnet which is generally considered a more intellectual form with an involved rhyme scheme. You can also have something a little less intellectual like... well, a limerick: regardless of its subject matter, it still follows a predictable pattern of rhythms and rhymes.

In music, there are all kinds of ways to combine these units that are comparable to words and sentences and paragraphs into larger and larger forms.

But sometimes it is more than just what you hear on the surface. There are underlying principles that move the music forward, at least in Western Music.

One underlying principle is “unity & variety.” You don't want everything sounding the same because pretty soon it gets boring with nothing to keep your attention. A little variety and you have something new and different to listen to. What's really interesting is creating variety but still keeping it unified with certain fingerprints that make it sound similar but not the same. Other times, you'll want outright contrast: you have one idea that's soft and lyrical but maybe your next idea will be louder and more dramatic sounding.

Another underlying principle is “statement & digression.” You state a theme and then digress from it – through variety or contrast. The thing is to be consistent enough to be building up a listeners expectations but then doing just enough to give the listener something a little unexpected to keep the interest from flagging.

You can expand this by turning the “digression” into something that becomes increasingly unstable. But to create a satisfying ending – not necessarily a happy ending but a logical conclusion – you might want to come back to that opening statement to give it a kind of closure, rounding it off to make it feel like it's come full circle. That would make it “Statement, Digression & Return.” This is what much Western Music has come to expect but lots of composers (especially 20th Century ones) decided it wasn't all that necessary.

One basic musical form is a three-part form described as A-B-A. The A-Section is one idea, the B-Section another, the return of the A-Section brings it to a close by bringing back the opening material. This would be “Statement - Digression - Return.”

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Now, a unit of measuring notes in the amount of space it takes to write them down is called a “measure” or a “bar” (a “bar” is a place where notes like to hang out). European music usually moves in groups of 4 measures and these would be balanced by another group of 4 measures. Not that it HAS to, but it usually does. In context, you get so used to that and that's what you expect: you might sense when the composer's bending or breaking the rules by doing something unexpected. You may not know it, but maybe you sense something is a little different.

If you have a three-part form – A-B-A – it could be (4+4) + (4+4) + (4+4) or a total of 24 measures.

There are all kinds of ways you can expand on these simple forms.

You could take that A-B-A piece and turn it into a just one 24-measure section of a larger A-B-A form where each section is now a complete A-B-A form itself. That would make it an expanded piece that's now 72 measures long.

The trick is to make it sound not quite so square, all this 4+4+4+4... It's not quite the same as saying you can only have 8 words in each sentence, but it can become pretty dull – or just predictable. If there isn't some way of varying the material inside those measures, the listener would soon tune out.

Now, if you're writing a larger piece, that 72 measure piece could be one of four movements. For contrast, each movement would probably use a different form. They might also be in contrasting tempos and moods.

If you have a melody and then repeat it with slight changes, you have a form that's called Variations. You can vary the theme in different ways so as it goes along, things get a little farther afield from the original. Again, the idea is not to be too boringly close to the theme itself but to bring in as much variety as you can and still have it be recognizable as the original (it's in there, somewhere).

Another form is kind of a variation on this A-B-A idea. It's called the “Sonata” Form and it's usually used for the bigger first movement of a piece.

In this case the opening A-Section is really a bunch of sub-groups that would include a couple of contrasting themes. Using lower-case letters for the sub-groups, it might be described as (a+b).

Then the Capitol B-Section is based on those two contrasting themes (in no particular order) where a composer might play one off against the other or take them apart bit by bit and mix them up so maybe you're not really sure what's developing here. The opening part seemed pretty stable: but now what's going on? It can become very dramatic, too, and feels unstable.

Then the return of the opening A-Section is like a resolution of this instability: you are now hearing something familiar and the tension that had been building up – this uncertainty – feels like it's been released. Both themes, the “a” and the “b,” will come back again in their proper order and then wrap things up very neatly.

So the opening A-Section with its two (or more) themes is called the “Exposition” because the composer is stating his basic material (in writing, passages that are “expository” state facts or material that you need to figure out a character or a plot detail – it may not be action in the plot but it may be important to understanding the plot).

The middle B-Section which develops this material more dramatically is called the “Development” (in a story, this is where "the plot thickens"). When it gets more dramatic and unstable in some way, the point where it resolves into what you've been expecting is sometimes called the “denouement” (day-noo-MAH(n)), a French term that basically means it's the Climax and after that point, things work themselves out into some kind of resolution.

This restatement of the themes from the opening section is called a “Recapitulation” and we often abbreviate that to “Recap,” just like something somebody does at the end of a presentation to remind you what the initial points of discussion were. So that would mean you're dealing with Exposition [A(a+b)] + Development [B(a/b)] + Recapitulation [A(a+b)]. (That would make that last sentence a “recap,” too.)

And that, in a nut-shell, is one of the major forms of classical music! The Sonata Form.

At least that's the idea – there are lots of variations on what a composer can do with this concept but that's basically it.

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No matter what the style is, though, most of Western Music follows similar concepts of
Unity and Variety – a theme is presented (creating a sense of unity getting started) and then you hear some contrast (different or entirely new but maybe with some aspects of unity). An idea or gesture in the music comes back and you sense that it belongs there (unity) but you also sense that it's a little different the way it's used this time (variety). Maybe what you expect isn't what actually happens – that might be more “variety” than “unity.” If you hear a variation on a melody, that would be “unity” but if it's not the same, there's some “variety” with that.

So when you're listening to a piece of music, think of it as a text with words – not necessarily a story, because not every piece of music is “about” something – that's put together with words (musical ideas or gestures – like the rising idea that opens Mendelssohn's Octet) that creates phrases with punctuation – where do you feel the music takes a breath or comes to something of a pause (maybe not a stop); how does the composer keep going so the music continues to flow past these breathing places, this punctuation, these periods?

Listen to how this gesture – or the next one – comes back and unifies the musical line. What kind of contrast is there with the next line? Is it subtle or is it more obvious, like the three ideas from the opening of the overture Mendelssohn wrote to “A Midsummer Night's Dream” - how does he differentiate the music we associate with the fairies and sprites from the music associated with the mortal couples and then the comic “rustics” complete with a guy who hee-haws? If you can distinguish between these themes and pay attention to them when they keep recurring – like following the players in a sport game – you're doing exactly what the composer wants you to do: to be aware (consciously or subconsciously) of the form.

Because the Overture to “A Midsummer Night's Dream” is in Sonata Form. For all its telling a story, for all the different characters and dramatic relationships the music is describing, it's still a fairly strict “Sonata Form.”

Referring back to the post on "Right Brain / Left Brain," this sense of structure makes it an abstract or a “left brained” idea.

The music's ability to describe the events of a story is very subjective or a “right brained” idea.

And so in this case, the piece can be appreciated on both an abstract and a subjective level.

That's one of the hallmarks of music – at least Western Music (music from non-Western cultures may follow different underlying principles). No matter what the surface may sound like, however the individual composer's style is realized, underneath that sound is a basic foundation in these basic principles of “unity & variety,” “statement & digression” that helps to create a context for the grouping of these notes, phrases and sections that can be abstract (giving pleasure to the mind) or subjective (giving pleasure to the heart) and with any luck, both.

Now, with those thoughts, listen to that overture - reposted in this video - from a different perspective.

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Mendelssohn's Biography: A Condensed Version


When Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809, 200 years ago, in the German city of Hamburg, most of Europe was dominated by wars with the French Emperor, Napoleon. Mendelssohn's father was a banker who was involved in what we might call the Resistance against the French, so when they took over the city in 1811, he took his family and fled in the middle of the night, moving back to Berlin to joining the family bank's “home office.”

The Mendelssohn children would get up at 5am to begin their lessons for the day which included languages (German, French and English, Greek and Latin), literature, math, history and a number of other courses including music lessons. On Sundays, the children could sleep in until 6am. He was studying the piano when he was 6 and taking composition lessons when he was 10. When he was 11, he started composing several small symphonies for a string orchestra. He also took violin lessons.

The Mendelssohn home was a gathering place for the best minds in Berlin. They would come for Sunday's afternoon musicales – where the children would often perform with their teachers and friends – drink tea, eat great food and have discussions about the latest ideas in the arts as well as in science and philosophy.

For some of these musicales, Mendelssohn's father Abraham would hire musicians to come play works his son and daughter had composed. Felix Mendelssohn (see right) would conduct his little symphonies, standing on a chair so the musicians could see him over their music stands. His older sister, Fanny, was an excellent pianist and a composer, too. They often wrote works for each other to perform. Mendelssohn wrote two concertos for two pianos which they could play together with the orchestra. They were both child prodigies – children who exhibited a highly advanced level of talent many adults would envy.

When Mendelssohn was 13, his composition teacher took him to play for the greatest living German writer, Goethe (pronounced in German, GER-teh). When he was a boy, Goethe had heard the child Mozart play the piano and some of his compositions, too. Mozart was probably the most famous child prodigy in music. Goethe thought Mendelssohn was more advanced.

Mendelssohn composed a great deal. Suddenly, in the midst of all the music he was composing then, he wrote a piece for his violin teacher's birthday, the Octet for Strings, that most people would assume it's good enough to be by a mature genius. So they're very surprised when they're told Mendelssohn wrote it when he was 16.

(You can hear the second half of the piece in this music video post. Odin Rathnam and members of the West Branch Music Festival will be coming to John Harris High School to perform it on September 16th.)

The next year, Mendelssohn composed an overture inspired by reading Shakespeare's play “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” This is another one of those “I-can't-believe-he-wrote-it-when-he-was-a-teen-ager” pieces.

You can hear a 'video' of the music posted here, along with a time-line where you can hear the different themes and how they relate to the story.

It would become one of his most popular pieces. Some people think – with maybe a couple of exceptions – he never wrote anything better than these two pieces.

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After he attended some classes at the Berlin University, he was 20 when he conducted a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion. This is a very long work that had not been performed since before Bach's death in 1750, eighty years earlier. It was such a success, Mendelssohn is given credit for starting “The Bach Revival.” Bach is generally regarded as one of the Great Composers today – one of the 3 B's along with Beethoven and Brahms – but in Mendelssohn's time, not too many people knew his music.

Unlike most composers who were always dealing with financial worries, Mendelssohn was born into a wealthy family. His parents were both from two of the wealthiest families in Berlin – here is a post about his mother's family; in this post you can see some pictures like this one (right) of the Mendelssohn's house in Berlin where these Sunday musicales took place and where Mendelssohn composed all this music (this is a house, not a palace or a government building). The bank his father and uncles founded was also one of the biggest banks in Germany and it continued to be a major banking company up until World War II.

Mendelssohn was born into the Jewish faith. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn (see left), was a famous philosopher at a time when Jews were just beginning to be accepted into society though there were still anti-Semitic reactions in many areas. Mendelssohn's maternal grandfather had been a prominent merchant and banker working in the court of King Frederick the Great of Prussia.

Given the religious attitudes of the time, several members of the family – from Moses Mendelssohn and his sons to brothers of Mendelssohn's mother – favored either “assimilation” where Jews consciously become more like the society they live in or outright “conversion” to the Protestant faith. None of them were especially devout and Abraham Mendelssohn was convinced his children would get ahead in the world with greater ease if they were Protestants. So when Felix was 7, his father had the children baptized in the Lutheran faith.

Many people still considered Mendelssohn Jewish despite the conversion. It became more of a problem after his death when anti-Semitic campaigns were launched against his music. Eventually, when the Nazis took over Germany in the 1930s, Mendelssohn's music disappeared, statues of him were taken down, and museums dedicated to his life and music were closed. The family's banking company was taken over by a government sanctioned bank and all the Jewish employees were fired.

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After Mendelssohn turned 20, he spent some time traveling, going first to England and then to Italy for extended trips. He performed as a concert pianist, conducted and played his own music.

He writes several pieces, including an orchestral work inspired by his visit to a cave on a little island off the Scottish coast called Fingal's Cave. You can see a modern day trip to the cave in this post and then a performance of the music it inspired Mendelssohn to compose.

Another piece he composed around this time was based on an old legend about a water nymph who wants to become human so she can fall in love. This same story inspired Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid” which in turn inspired the Disney film. Mendelssohn called his work “The Fair Melusine.” You can hear it here on one of the Music Video posts.

When he was 25, he writes a large choral work, an oratorio based on the story of St. Paul. In the New Testament, Paul was originally a Jew who persecuted Christians but “on the road to Damascus” was converted to Christianity in a blinding flash and would become one of the leading figures in the history of the early Christian church.

At 26, Mendelssohn settled in Leipzig where he became the conductor of an orchestra in Leipzig called “The Gewandhaus Orchestra.” Gewandhaus (geh-VONT-house) referred to the old Cloth Merchants' Guild building where the orchestra performed (see right). It was originally founded in 1743 and the orchestra still performs today. You can hear more current members of the orchestra play music Mendelssohn conducted with them over 170 years ago.

Mendelssohn composed five symphonies. The first – not counting those “string symphonies” he composed between the ages of 11 and 14 – was written when he was 15 but the two best known works were musical souvenirs of his trips to Scotland and to Italy. It took him 11 years to finish the “Scottish” Symphony. He never did publish the “Italian” Symphony which, for some reason, he felt needed to be revised. He just never got around to it.

(You can hear the opening of the Italian Symphony at the beginning of this post - while he was in Rome, he met Hector Berlioz whose music he thought sounded... well, "dirty." At the end of that post, you can hear the last minute of a piece by Hector Berlioz that he was writing in Rome the same time Mendelssohn was writing his Italian Symphony.)

An earlier symphony was written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of an important event in the Lutheran Church history. He quotes Martin Luther's hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in the last movement. But it was rejected by the committee planning the anniversary festival – it was more than they were looking for, but word had it they didn't perform it because to them Mendelssohn was a Jewish composer: what right did he have to be quoting Martin Luther?

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Much of Mendelssohn's biography reads like an appointment book: this year he wrote this, performed that, conducted here and there. He was very busy as a composer, conductor, pianist, organist, teacher and music festival organizer.

When he was 28, he married the daughter of a French Protestant minister and during his honeymoon wrote a string quartet, a setting of a Psalm for chorus and orchestra, and his 2nd Piano Concerto which he went off to perform in England a few months after the wedding.

In 1842, he met Queen Victoria of England. After a performance there of St. Paul, he spent 9 days of constant traveling to get back to his home in Leipzig in time to conduct a concert: after several carriages, boats and steamships and very little sleep, he arrived in Leipzig around 2:00 and walked on stage to conduct the concert at 6:00 that evening. He admitted to being “a little tired” after the concert (the 19th Century version of jet-lag).

The King of Prussia invites him back to Berlin to compose music for several plays and to direct concerts and found a music-school. Not much comes of these projects except he does finally write music for the complete play, “A Midsummer Nights Dream” by Shakespeare. He had written the Overture when he was 17, then wrote the rest of the music (including the famous Wedding March which you can hear in this music video post) when he was 34.

Since he couldn't get a music school started in Berlin, he started one in Leipzig instead, associated with his orchestra. As if he didn't have enough to do...

For a performance in England, he agrees to write another oratorio, this one based on the biblical story of Elijah. He conducts the premiere in England but returns to Leipzig exhausted. Shortly after he arrives home, he receives the news that his sister Fanny died suddenly, apparently of a stroke. She was 41.

They had been very close as children and remained close throughout their lives. Her death affected him so deeply, he had to go to Switzerland to recuperate from an illness he never really recovered from. Less than six months later, he died of a series of strokes himself. He was only 38 years old. (Read more in this post about his last year and especially the peoples' reactions to the news of his death.)

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Mendelssohn was a celebrity, one of the most popular composers of his day. His music, like the culture he grew up in, was “comfortable” and “polite,” not stormy and dramatic like many of the composers around him. His personality was reserved, not flamboyant. He didn't write music to “storm the heavens” like Beethoven did and he wasn't writing “Music for the Future” like his contemporary Richard Wagner would write. If these men had personalities that gave them “super-hero” personalities, Mendelssohn was very human.

His music often expresses a youthful exuberance and may at times be dramatic but never so “over-the-top” as some of his friends' music was. When it was sad, it was never tragic. He wrote not for intellectuals or people interested in adventure. He wrote to comfort people and to connect on a human level with amateur music-lovers and performers who sometimes got lost in the “modern” music of their day.

Today, we talk about people with “left brain” or “right brain” personality traits – some of these can be applied to musicians (composers and performers) and described basically as “classical” or “romantic” styles. Music of the “Classical” style was more abstract and tended to be concerned more with clearer forms and textures. Music of the “Romantic” style was more subjective and emotional and more concerned with spontaneity and the blurring of lines in music's forms and textures.

Mendelssohn was a little of each, perhaps “2 parts Classical to 1 part Romantic.”

One of his teachers, the German philosopher Hegel, is probably best remembered today for what is called the “Hegelian Dialectic.” Simply put, you take an idea (a thesis) and contrast it with its opposite idea (an antithesis) and then combine the best aspects of both to create something of a compromise (a synthesis).

In a sense, (2 Parts Classical) + (1 Part Romantic) = Felix Mendelssohn.

- Dr. Dick

Mendelssohn on the program with Market Square Concerts

Performers at two of Market Square Concerts programs this fall will feature works by Felix Mendelssohn. Student passes for these concerts will be available through your music teacher upon request – just ask them for a pass. Both performances take place at Whitaker Center.

Next month, the Parker Quartet (see right) will be playing the first “mature” string quartet Mendelssohn composed, written when he was 18. (Just to confuse things, a quartet he wrote later ended up getting sent to the publisher sooner than he published this one, so even though he wrote it first, it's published as his String Quartet No. 2...)

He wrote it after studying one of Beethoven's last works, a string quartet written only a few years earlier. Mendelssohn began to compose this work only a few months after Beethoven died so in a sense it's a tribute from the younger generation to the older. In it, he puts aside the youthful joy you can hear in the Octet and the Midsummer Night's Dream overture for something more serious and dramatic.

Here's the Cavani Quartet in a performance of the first movement of his String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13.
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The Parker Quartet will be playing it Sunday, October 11th at Whitaker Center in downtown Harrisburg.

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In November, cellist Zuill Bailey will be playing Mendelssohn's 2nd Cello Sonata on Tuesday, Nov. 17th at Whitaker Center.

Mendelssohn composed it around the same time he had written the music for Shakespeare's play, “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” when he was 34 years old. It's in four movements but in this performance, I found a clip of the last movement with a Thai cellist named Ekachai Maskulrat; the pianist is Low Shao Ying.

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Mendelssohn's 1st Piano Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony

Mendelssohn's music is also on the program with other performances in Harrisburg this fall and winter.

In February, Stuart Malina (left), conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, will be the piano soloist for Mendelssohn's 1st Piano Concerto – he'll also be conducting the orchestra from the piano (just to make it a little more challenging). These performances will take place at the Forum at the State Capitol Buildings on February 27th & 28th - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3.

Here are three clips of the whole concerto – each clip is a different movement. The performance was recorded by a Polish TV station in 2003 (I think) and the soloist is a Vietnamese pianist named Dang Thai Son. He won 1st prize at the 10th Chopin Competition when he was 22, the first Asian pianist to win the competition which has been held every few years since the 1920s. Here, he was guest soloist in opening night of 15th Chopin Competition in Warsaw.

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(I had found a great clip of the great African-American pianist Andre Watts playing the first movement of the concerto several years ago with the Boston Pops Orchestra but unfortunately the "embedding function" was "disabled by request." If you can check it out from a home computer, this is the link.)

Mendelssohn's Life, Mendelssohn's Death


The Mendelssohns were Anglophiles. They loved English customs and spoke the language fluently. They consumed vast quantities of English tea unlike most of their Berlin neighbors. They read English writers mostly in English, including Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, often before their books were available in German. It wasn't surprising, when Felix had a chance to travel on his own, he chose to go to England.

During his first trip – in 1829 when he was 20 and this portrait of him was painted – George IV was king. Jane Austen, who had died 12 years earlier, was the famous writer of novels like “Pride & Prejudice” and “Emma.” Her books reflected life during “The Regency” with plots superimposed on the family's concerns for respectability and getting the daughters married to respectable husbands to ensure their fortune.

His next several visits were during the reign of William IV, younger brother of the previous king.

Following his honeymoon in 1837, Mendelssohn visited London to perform his new 2nd Piano Concerto, arriving a few months after the death of William IV when Victoria became Queen at the age of 18.

(You can read more about the British Royals of the Early 19th Century in this post.)


Victoria enjoyed music and liked to sing. Her husband, Prince Albert, either accompanied her or sang duets with her after dinner ( he disliked the English custom where, once the meal is done, the men stayed in one room and smoke while the women went to a different room and talk). He was also a fine organist.

It wasn't until his visit in 1842 when Mendelssohn, already a musical idol to the London audiences, met the Royal Family. He first met Prince Albert who invited Mendelssohn to come to Buckingham Palace to play the organ there and when he arrived, he found the prince alone in the music room. While they were talking, the Queen walked in by herself, dressed in a regular house-dress, no state robes or any formal escorts – we always seem to think the Royals sit around in these outrageous court costumes – and flustered because they were getting ready to leave for a country estate for a holiday. Wind from an open window had scattered loose pages of sheet music from the organ all over the floor, so she hurried to pick them up and sort through them. Albert then played the organ for Mendelssohn while the Queen listened (see illustration, right). Then Mendelssohn sat down to play for them. When he started playing a chorus from his oratorio, St. Paul, the royal couple both started to sing along.

Later, Albert said to his wife she should sing for Mendelssohn but she couldn't find the sheet music she was looking for – it had already been packed for the holiday. Eventually, they found it and Queen Victoria sang for Mendelssohn one of her favorite of his songs. Accompanying her at the piano, he diplomatically had to correct her when she sang a wrong note. The only thing was, it was not by Felix Mendelssohn – it was by Fanny Mendelssohn! It was one of his sister's songs he'd published under his name just to get it published and before the public (it wasn't that he was trying to steal credit for it). He wrote all this down in a letter to his family back in Berlin, telling them he had to admit (joking that “pride goeth before a fall”) the composer's true identity. Victoria recorded this fact in her own diary but made no comment about her reaction to the deception.

By the end of the visit, Mendelssohn asked the Queen if he could dedicate his new symphony to her – this would be the “Scottish” Symphony – which he was soon to premiere. She accepted and gave him a beautiful ring engraved with her initials and the date, 1842.

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By now, Mendelssohn had become the most popular living composer in England: all the Royal Philharmonic had to do to make a financial surplus from ticket sales was program some of Mendelssohn's music. His sweet style – not too “heady” – resonated with the English audiences.

Unfortunately, the London musicians could make no sense out of Schubert's “Great” C Major Symphony which Mendelssohn had just premiered in Leipzig – they rebelled at its length (over 45 minutes) and found it tiring to play. So Mendelssohn withdrew it from the program and refused to premiere a new overture of his everybody had been waiting for.

He was the Pied-Piper to English music-lovers. When they asked him to take over the directorship of the Birmingham Choral Festival, he declined, but agreed to write them a new oratorio – based on Elijah – which he'd come back and conduct for them.

Here's something typical of Mendelssohn's traveling: in 1842, he left Birmingham as soon as the performance of St. Paul was over, about mid-afternoon, arriving by coach in London around midnight. He took the mail-coach to Dover, arriving around 9am to catch a boat without taking time for breakfast so he could get to the steamer that would take him to France – he was seasick, as usual – followed by an immediate coach-ride through Belgium to the Rhine. There, he immediately caught a steam-boat that got socked in by fog in the middle of the night, so he got off the steamer, was rowed to shore where he caught one coach before switching to another at 3am to arrive in Frankfort where he met his wife, Cècile, whom he'd left there visiting family and friends. Immediately into another carriage, it took 3 days to reach Leipzig where he arrived at 2pm. He walked out on stage at 6pm that evening to conduct the first concert of the season with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. After the concert, he admitted to being a little tired... following nine continuous days of travel, the 19th-Century equivalent of jet-lag.

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After he returned to Leipzig, he started work on founding a new music school there, comparable to one the Prussian king had proposed for Berlin but which several years later had still never gotten off the ground. The next spring, Leipzig's new conservatory (see left) opened to take in its first students with Mendelssohn as its director. He asked Robert Schumann to teach composition and Clara Schumann to teach piano. Later, he would conduct the premiere of Schumann's Piano Concerto with Clara Schumann at the piano.

There was also an old friend he brought in to teach the violin, Ferdinand David who was the Gewandhaus Orchestra's concertmaster or principal 1st Violinist. A year later, Mendelssohn would begin composing his Violin Concerto for him (you can hear two prodigies play the last movement of it in this music-video post).

During Mendelssohn's lifetime, the concert experience was primarily a hodge-podge of orchestral works (sometimes excerpts) interspersed with piano solos or chamber music or songs and short choral works. Most of the music was written by living composers or those – like Beethoven – who may have died only recently. Mendelssohn regularly began to program more “old music,” especially by Bach and Mozart, something unheard of then. He would mix old and new music with a soloist playing a concerto or singing a group of selections which became the formula still heard in most symphony concerts today.

Another fairly new idea was “the conductor.” Even in Beethoven's time, most orchestras were led by the concertmaster or the principal 1st Violinist (Odin Rathnam, who'll be performing on September 16th with friends of his from the West Branch Music Festival, is also the concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony). But as the music became more complicated and concerts became more varied, the concertmaster went from sitting at the front of the violin section to standing in front of the orchestra, conducting with his violin bow. In 1820, violinist Ludwig Spohr used a short wooden stick called a “baton” to beat time with so the musicians could follow him better. This is usually how conductors today still communicate visually to the musicians.

By the time Mendelssohn was conducting in London the idea of using a baton was barely 9 years old and still, for some reason, “controversial,” probably because that wasn't the way they used to do it...

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As there was a “Mendelssohn House” in Berlin where Felix grew up, there was now a “Mendelssohn House” in Leipzig (see left) where the composer lived with his wife and children. They had five children over a period of seven years but none of the children exhibited any musical talent. Cècile was considered a “placid” temperament who might help keep her husband calm but she did not inspire him to compose or shift his music to any higher level of intensity, intellectually or emotionally. It seems he didn't really discuss his music with her – that, he still reserved for his sister as he had always done. If anything, as some friends noted, his music became stuck in a more comfortable rut. That might not hold true for some of the works he composed in those years – finishing the Scottish Symphony, the Violin Concerto and most of all, the music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. It may be a criticism of the 2nd STRING QUINTET he composed in 1845, the year after he'd finished the Violin Concerto and two years after the Midsummer music: it's too comfortable, pleasant enough but perhaps too close to trying to recapture the spirit of the Octet he'd composed 20 years earlier.

This small corner study was where Mendelssohn composed, using a tiny spinet piano. On top of the desk's shelf is a portrait of his sister, Fanny, and on the wall (at least as its maintained now that it's a museum) are framed water-colors Mendelssohn had painted during his travels.

Mendelssohn frequently played for his wife and the children. Even though she was entirely devoted to him and his music, Cècile's favorite piano pieces were by Frederic Chopin. At one point, Mendelssohn writes a fan letter to Chopin asking him for a scrap of music written down with his autograph and a dedication to his wife.

The music room here was for his own music-making: friends would stop over to play music or famous guests when they were in town. He did not have time to organize anything as regular as the Sunday musicales of his childhood. After his mother's death in 1843, Mendelssohn inherited the Berlin family home which without a thought he gave to his sisters. Fanny was still holding the musicales there on her own.

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Much of Mendelssohn's biography reads like an appointment book – works he composed or conducted in Leipzig or London, responsibilities he took on or didn't. He wanted to write a new symphony and considered several possible subjects for an opera but rejected them all.

He heard the great soprano Jenny Lind (“The Swedish Nightingale” as she was called) and fell in love with her voice (there was an unsubstantiated rumor that he may have fallen in love with her, but there's no proof of that). He wrote the soprano solo in his new oratorio with her voice in mind. Unfortunately she chose not to sing the English premiere but agreed to sing the next performance in Vienna.

So Mendelssohn finished the oratorio Elijah in a single burst of creative energy during the summer of 1846. As soon as he was done with it, he went off to England to conduct its premiere. With a major work getting ready for its first performance, Mendelssohn still found time and energy to conduct a few orchestral concerts and play a Beethoven piano concerto along with several chamber music concerts, two appearances at Buckingham Palace and playing at a reception at the Prussian ambassador's home. Talk about “workaholic”!

Elijah was a great success, but Mendelssohn was exhausted by the time he returned to Leipzig. He had said when he said good-bye to Victoria and Albert – after she sang three of his songs and he played through several new pieces for them – he was so tired he could hardly raise his arms. Rather than travel straight through as he used to, he had to stop three times to rest.

He had only been home in Leipzig a few days when news arrived that his sister Fanny had died suddenly – she had been rehearsing a work of his for one of those Sunday musicales when she felt faint, her hands falling from the piano keyboard. She was carried to the next room but never regained consciousness: by 11:00 that night, she had died. She was only 41.

(see illustration, right, a portrait of Fanny & her husband, Wilhelm Hensel.)

When Felix received the news, he collapsed and remained “insensible for some time.” When he came to, he could not stop crying. Even though he seemed to recuperate, the shock changed him and so Cècile decided to take him away on a vacation to rest.

They met his brother Paul and Fanny's husband, Wilhelm Hensel, but the time together was uncomfortable, reminding him of who wasn't there. So Cècile took him to Switzerland. A friend visiting him there commented about how gray he looked, how he had aged. One day, he couldn't stand the idea of playing the piano; the next day, he thought he might write a new piano concerto. He sketched a good deal (like this water-color of Lucerne, see left) and eventually began to compose a string quartet. It is very dramatic and uncharacteristically emotional: he called it his “Requiem for Fanny.”

He went back to work, getting ready for the Berlin performance of Elijah but when he entered the family house and saw the room where Fanny had died – and his score still sitting on the piano's music-rack – he broke down again and decided he could not conduct, so the performance was canceled. He would probably cancel the Vienna performance, too.

He submitted his resignation to the Gewandhaus but returned to get ready for the Conservatory's new year but in early October, he was ill, though for no apparent reason. Later in the month, he had great spasms of pain – his symptoms that could have indicated a series of strokes except doctors then didn't understand them. A few days later, on November 4th, he died around 9:30 that night at the age of 38.

People in Leipzig had heard Mendelssohn was ill and they waited in a vigil outside the house by the hundreds. When they heard that he had died, they stormed the house. The children had been asleep but when Cècile went to bring them in to see their father, friends had to push the crowd out of the way so they could enter the room and forcibly bar the doors.

(The illustration, left, includes a sketch made of Mendelssohn's profile as he lay in repose after his death beside the actual death-mask made shortly afterward. It was a common habit to take death-masks - in later decades, people often took photographs of the body as it lay on the death-bed, something we may think gruesome or ghoulish today.)

After the funeral – where a chorus of 600 sang a Bach chorale and a chorus from Mendelssohn's St. Paul – a thousand people escorted the coffin by torchlight to the train-station. That night, all along the route, people had gathered to watch the train pass, many of them singing tributes. The train arrived in Berlin at 7am and Mendelssohn was buried in the cemetery next to Fanny.

Memorial concerts were performed all over Germany and in England. The Vienna performance of Elijah had not been canceled but now it was staged as a memorial to the composer. The music stands were all draped in black, the performers dressed entirely in mourning. The score rested on the raised podium that Mendelssohn would have used, a laurel wreath resting on top of it. The man who conducted the performance stood on a lower podium to lead the performance. Many in the audience wept throughout the performance.

Consolations arrived from Queen Victoria who had written in her diary that she was “horrified, astounded and distressed” by the news of his death. She reflected the attitude of many of his fans, both British and German.

One of the most popular musicians of the day had passed and the outpouring of grief and shock was felt across a continent.

- Dr. Dick