2017-05-21 Notes from the Bench


“Allegro maestoso” from “Organ Sonata No. 5” by Felix Mendelssohn-Barthody

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate


Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847), or just Felix Mendelssohn as he is generally known in most English speaking countries, was an important German composer, pianist, organist, and conductor of the early romantic era and today is among the most popular composers of that period. The Six Sonatas for Organ (Op. 65) were the result of a commission Mendelssohn received from the British publisher, Coventry and Hollier, in 1844. The original commission was for Mendelssohn to compose a set of church voluntaries; however, he expanded the project and organized the pieces into the Six Sonatas we are familiar with today. These works were not constructed in the classical era “sonata” form associated with the works of Mozart or Haydn, but rather Mendelssohn applied the term to these works in the manner Johann Sebastian Bach did, as a collection or suite of varying pieces. The “Allegro maestoso” is the final portion of Sonata number Five in D major.




Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg into a prominent Jewish family; his father a successful banker, his grandfather a Jewish rabbi and philosopher. Mendelssohn’s parents converted to Christianity and had their children baptized when the family moved to Berlin in 1816. The family changed their name to “Barthody” at the time of their conversion, however Felix resisted, refusing to ignore his Jewish heritage, but later compromised by allowing himself to be called “Mendelssohn-Barthody.” Felix Mendelssohn was a child prodigy and a prolific and masterful composer at an early age and life in Berlin provided him with many educational and social opportunities. Mendelssohn was renown during his lifetime as a performer of keyboard music and a brilliant improviser. He traveled throughout Europe performing concerts that often included extended improvisations. Mendelssohn is credited with reviving interest in the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach. At the age of 20, he conducting a performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and later performed a number of Bach’s organ works, notably an organ concert of Bach’s organ works at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig where Bach served as Kantor. Mendelssohn was greatly admired in Britain where he frequently visited, and in addition to performing concerts, he conducted the Philharmonic orchestra in London. Many of his works were premiered there and he had received multiple commissions from British publishers. Mendelssohn’s oeuvre includes five symphonies, two oratorios, concerti, chamber music, sacred and secular vocal works, and works for piano and organ.




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