19
May
11

Mendelssohnian musings

Sometimes I think Mendelssohn gets short shrift.  Perhaps it’s just an artifact of my own musical upbringing (which didn’t include a lot of Mendelssohn), but it seems to me his music is not paid the attention it deserves.  Of course, everyone knows the overture to, and the wedding march from, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Octet is fairly ubiquitous, but how many people know the motets?  The overture for winds?  (I like to joke that the body of the overture for winds [after a spine-tingling introduction] is what Arthur Sullivan’s music would have sounded like if Sullivan had been a better composer.)  Heck, even the epic 2nd symphony isn’t particularly well-known.  Here’s a taste of it (do watch the entire thing; you won’t be disappointed):

Of course, one of Mendelssohn’s great claims to fame is his revival of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and of interest in Bach’s music in general.  Mendelssohn was obviously influenced by Bach’s music.  Like Bach, Mendelssohn knew that whatever events occur on the surface of a piece of tonal music, however catchy, unusual, or seemingly capricious they may be, need to be grounded and united in driving toward goals.  In chapter one of his magnum opus, Der Freie Satz, Heinrich Schenker says “Without a goal, there can be no content.”  And like Bach, Mendelssohn knew how to arrange a logical sequence of goals.  His harmonies never appear completely unjustified, although, again like Bach (and all great composers), the element of surprise – where appropriate – is retained.  Indeed, one of the skills that sets the master apart from the dilettante is the ability to at once flout and satisfy the listener’s expectations.  A surprising event on the surface can and should be able to be thoroughly explained and shown to meet logic’s demands in the background. 

Schenker has this to say about superficial complexity: “A firmly established linear progression can withstand even the most discordant friction of voices as they move contrapuntally.”  Schenker is often accused of un-artistic reductionism, but I’d reduce the idea contained in that statement even further and say that a firmly established scale-step can withstand that same friction.  The point is that as long as the composer takes care to create the individual voices so that they work toward a common, perceptible and intentional* goal (or harmonic expression), there is actually a great deal of freedom with which those voices can move and “bump into each other.”  One can see this in the works of Bach especially, when a certain vertical simultaneity of tones appears to defy classification as a chord.  This is because it does defy classification as a chord.  Such phenomena are better understood as artifacts of counterpoint – discordant friction. 

If I were to make one criticism of Mendelssohn’s writing, it would be that his counterpoint can be a little too “on-the-nose,” so to speak.  It often expresses harmony a little too squarely; the voices are often a bit too co-operative, and lose some  of their sense of individuality.  Sometimes I wish there were more of that “discordant friction” of which Schenker spoke, and of which Bach was a consummate master.  Bach’s counterpoint often blurs the line between what would be, in a lesser talent’s hands, obviously discrete harmonies.  This way of writing creates, perhaps counter-intuitively, a more coherent, tightly knit structure.  These overlapping and interlocking discords and resolutions serve to create a sort of fascia that really holds the piece together.  Music that proceeds in clearly demarcated “chunks” of harmony hangs together much more loosely.  One can almost “see” through the holes between the harmonies.  The “non-square” kind of writing I’ve been flogging here does appear in Mendelssohn’s music from time to time, I just wish it were more often.

*There is a lot of music out there that only superficially mimics the processes of the masters.  Sometimes one comes across a passage in such a piece that seems to arrive at a “goal,” but it is clear from the surrounding mess that the “goal” was only accidentally stumbled upon, as when a fairly new piano student tries several things out on the keyboard until finally (and not due to any real forethought) they strike upon something pleasing: “Oh! That sounds good!”

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