Sunday, November 15, 2009

Felix Mendelssohn: his feelings of inadequacy aren't like your feelings of inadequacy

I have been reading a bit about Felix Mendelssohn's inadequate feelings about his Fourth Symphony, and how they mystified critics, like Donald Francis Tovey, who considered it a most perfect piece of music. I think that the answer is that Mendelssohn's feelings of inadequacy are simply on a higher level than the feelings of inadequacy enjoyed by most composers and most critics (particularly people like Tovey who were both). It is a little bit like the charming intel commercial that has been circulating on line.

Mendelssohn was a conductor who held Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven as his ideal composers. But Mendelssohn was working in a different time, and his music demanded different harmonic configurations. Some of his harmonic configurations and modulations are difficult for an orchestra to get the first time (or the second, or the third), and some of his string parts (particularly the viola part of this piece, which I am playing) are downright uncomfortable to play for those same harmonic reasons. As a conductor/composer, and as a gentleman (which we knew he was), and considering the fact that he was working with the finest musicians in Germany, he knew that he couldn't blame the musicians for playing that was less expressive or less pristine than what he had in mind. He also knew from conducting the works of Beethoven and Mozart that it was possible to write music in such a way that everything could be a total pleasure for all the musicians to play.

Playing through this piece from the standpoint of a violist, and keeping Mendelssohn's ideals in mind, I can understand his pain, but before playing the viola part of the piece (I have played the flute parts), I had no idea why he would feel the way he did about the Symphony, which he never published during his lifetime.

It is interesting to contemplate the relationship of this Symphony to Fanny's "Das Jahr" cycle of piano music that I love so much. These few sentences from a letter that Felix from to Fanny make me wonder if he might have been inspired to write an Italian symphony by the quality of her musical impressions of her year in Rome for piano.
“The ‘Italian’ symphony is making great progress. It will be the jolliest piece I have ever done, especially the last movement. I have not found anything for the slow movement yet, and I think that I will save that for Naples.”
There is something about the relationship between Felix and Fanny that makes me very sentimental. She was his older sister, and she was his very closest friend, and probably his greatest constant living musical inspiration, from very early childhood, and into their very short periods of adulthood.


Unknown said...

I'm not a composer (in that I don't sit down and write pieces, although I am an active improviser), but once I did try composing, the weight of the action was so heavy that I almost instantly stopped. There has been so much great music before me, how could I possibly be bold enough to think I could benefit (and maybe even advance) the art!

So, although I am definitely not Mendelssohn, I understand and sympathize. To hold music at such a central point in your world and then to not be able to totally pin it down is a rough feeling. Even if you're one of the most beloved composers of all time.

Crayons said...

OK, I'm embarrassed to say that this post brought out great feelings of inadequacy in me. I mean, it looks brilliant, but my landing gear got caught before I even took off.

Elaine Fine said...

And would you believe that he could draw too?

Michael Walsh said...

It sounds like "feelings of inadequacy" is a bad thing! If you feel inadequate, you either quit or get better. Mendelssohn started off extremely well-talented, but he didn't rest on that talent, as many lesser lights in all fields have done.

I'm convinced he felt the Italian should have been a more "important" work. I own a recording which is paired with a revision he did a year later. That revision does sound more important, and horribly wrong in so many ways. The finale, for example, is fleshed out to a full rondo and the structure does feel more symmetrical and polished. This is supplemented with a more menacing atmosphere. But this version doesn't add anything to the impact of the movement, and even dilutes it by saying what didn't need to be said. His internal editor was right the first time, and that's where those feelings of inadequacy betrayed him.

As a composer, I understand the impulse to go back and fix an earlier opus. But everyone grows and changes through life, and an artist's attitudes and perspectives evolve as well. Unless you can consider an earlier work as part of its time, you might do nothing with the rest of your life other than rewrite the same dozen pieces over and over again. That strikes me as an inadequate use of my time.