Not effortless after all

8th March 2010 | Daily Life, Musings | 1 comment

I was recently sent the score of Mendelssohn’s D minor piano trio, in a forthcoming edition of his first draft of the piece. I’d read about this first draft, but had never had the chance to see it until the editor of the new Leipzig edition, Dr Salome Reiser, kindly sent me a copy.

I knew that Mendelssohn revised his original draft after hearing criticisms of the piano writing from his composer friend Ferdinand Hiller. But in fact the original draft was different in a great many respects, not just that of the piano writing. I spent an interesting morning comparing the two versions. In almost every case it seemed to me that Mendelssohn’s later ideas were better and more subtle, though in the first draft there were several passages where he had embarked on an intriguing harmonic drift, later abandoned. In particular, some of his ‘genius ideas’ from the later version, such as the unforgettable way he brings back the opening theme in the recapitulation of the first movement with a soaring violin descant above it – a descant which becomes the second theme of the slow movement – were not there at all in his first draft. Thank heavens he had second thoughts!

As Dr Reiser said, the first draft is notable partly because we tend to think of Mendelssohn as an unusually lucky person who just sat down in his elegant frock coat and let works of divine inspiration roll effortlessly from his pen. This early version of his famous D minor Trio proves that however easy or fluent the final result may look, there was (as usual) honest toil going on behind the scenes.

1 Comment

  1. peter

    You are quite correct, Susan, to criticize the commonplace view of Mendelssohn as writing music without any apparent effort. Indeed, this view can be refuted by actually listening to his music carefully: His String Octet is a work of extraordinary power, written when he was 17, but it did not just appear from nowhere. He wrote 12 string symphonies in his teens, and if you listen to these in the order they were written you can hear him developing as a composer, becoming more sophisticated, trying different voicings and effects, using themes with greater developmental potential, and undertaking more subtle articulations as the sequence progresses. The Octet is thus the culmination of an intense period of composing for string ensembles, of listening to the results, and of learning from the experience, undertaken over years.

    Believing that Mendelssohn composed as if he were taking dictation from some heavenly god of music is not only incorrect, but also devalues his own effort and contribution to the task of composition: once again, it was 99% perspiration!


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