By Gabriel Prynn, cellist
Part 2/3: Mendelssohn – Trio n°1 in D Minor, OP. 49 (1839)
It is often said that Mendelssohn was the most classical of all the Romantic composers. Certainly, if we compare Mendelssohn with the other great composers born around the same year as he – Wagner, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Verdi – we feel that there is in his music a unique elegance, a beautiful symmetry in his musical phrases that makes the passage from Apollonian classicism to Dionysian romanticism both seamless and seductive – all the while maintaining a link with the great composers of the past, especially Bach.
The success of his first trio was marked by a commendation from his friend Robert Schumann, who valued it as « the master trio of our time » and on a par with Beethoven and Schubert. The long, glorious themes in the first movement of this work, building on multiple layers, renounce their classical models, giving the piano a sophisticated part to play, almost beyond the capabilities of the piano of the era. A variety of textures, rich in counterpoint, weave melodious conversations.
Vivid and dynamic harmonies combine with expansive melodies, thereby enriching the narrative of the sonata form.
The inspiration behind the piano melody in the introduction of the second movement is rooted in Mendelssohn’s celebrated Songs without Words, setting the tone for a musical journey that is as winding as it is lyrical. The effervescent and capricious Scherzo – another specialty of the composer – echoes his overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with rhythmic figurations full of playful, vibrant energy. There then follows an intense middle episode that suggests a battle between the strings. And then we return to a light, airy mood to complete the movement.
The Finale begins quietly, darkly, in the minor, before launching us into a moving musical tale where the players juggle a multitude of virtuoso passages and fiery melodies, leading us to a triumphant conclusion in the major.
Henry Fothergill Chorley, the English author and critic, also a friend and enthusiastic admirer of Felix Mendelssohn, took a journey with him in Switzerland in 1847 (Mendelssohn was already seriously ill and died a few months later). They decided to enter the church in a village they had come across. There was a small organ to be found there. Chorley describes what then occurred in his book “The Last Days of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy”:
« The master sat down at the keyboard, and we did not realise that he was in fact laying his fingers on the keys of an organ for the last time. He began an improvisation. Hearing his grandiose and wonderful playing, I instinctively felt that I was bidding adieu to the greatest modern musician. He seemed more remarkable than ever, this man who was wise, kind, gifted, old in experience, yet young thanks to his lively imagination and sensitivity.
He gave and received pleasure, drawing from a source that was never more rich in beautiful thoughts and in sublime modulations. We see the end of such things, but we never forget them. »