In mid-1838, Felix Mendelssohn wrote to the violinist Ferdinand David, telling him of a violin concerto he intended to compose: “One in E minor runs in my head, the beginning of which gives me no peace.” This work took a journey of over six years, with its debut by David at the Gewandhaus at Leipzig in the spring of 1845. Mendelssohn invested a meticulous level of detail –making adjustments even after the autograph manuscript was complete. The work is musically a world away from his first violin concerto, in d minor, which was written in his early teenage years.
“It is easy to see why the opening theme would not leave his thoughts, for it is as memorable as it is beautiful,” wrote Geoff Kuenning. Indeed it is, with the seductive violin line emerging from the orchestral texture after only a one-and-a-half bar introduction, as seen here in the composer’s own hand:
Even within the briefness of this unorthodox approach, one might construe a connection between the soloist and ensemble:
Whether this was the composer’s intent is impossible to ascertain, but it is nonetheless in-keeping with the architecture of the work – and is hinted at later on in the final movement. There, the solo violin echoes the motivic reduction of the tutti violins of the first movement, while the brass take on the dotted rhythm of the soloist.
The third theme of the opening movement, in the relative major of G, is characterised by Sir George Groves as being “one of the most lovely themes that ever inspired a composer or haunted a hearer… given out by the flutes and clarinets alone, and accompanied by the solo violin on the low G.”
The concerto explored new ground in several other respects. The lonely sustained bassoon constructs an unbroken pathway to the poignant second movement. There is also a melancholy introduction to the third, before the solo violin is allowed to dance its way to a brilliant finish, with interplay with the orchestra throughout.
In addition to the heartfelt melodic weaving that charms audiences to this day, this composition is also a testament to the relationship of composer and performer. David’s involvement has been seen by the likes of Joshua Bell as an invitation to relive the performer’s place within the work in recasting the cadenza. However, it can be alternatively argued that Mendelssohn’s correspondence with David shows a dedication to the art, and a mutual respect between musicians. It is this relationship that one can argue has led to the work’s immortal place in the violinist’s repertoire.
As Joseph Joachim wrote, “The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven’s. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.”