Piano Concerto No.1

Felix Mendelssohn

Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor

Op. 25

About this work

Mendelssohn, precocious and prodigious, wrote five works for piano and orchestra between the ages of 21 and 29. He began the first of them, the Capriccio brilliant, in 1830, but did not complete it until 1832. He composed the G minor Concerto in the interim, on a visit to Munich, where his frequent companion was Delphine von Schauroth, the daughter of a baroness. "She is an artist, and very cultured, whom everyone adores," he wrote to his cherished sister Fanny. "Ministers and counts trot around her like domestic animals in the hen yard; artists, too, and other cultivated persons....In short, I made sheep's eyes."

The concerto took shape in 1831 before and after morning calls on Delphine. Again to Fanny: "She composed a passage...that makes a startling effect," without specifying which one. Felix dedicated the work to Delphine, but assured Fanny that he did not love her. But then Mendelssohn didn't quite love his wife Cécile, either, when they were wed in 1837. Passion and joy developed later on, reversing the more common conjugal pattern.

He played the premiere himself in Munich on October 17, 1831, and often thereafter, with great success far and wide. Yet it was a performance by Liszt in Paris that made the work truly famous. A legion of young pianists took it up -- so obsessively that Berlioz, in Evenings with the Orchestra, wrote tongue-in-cheek of an Érard piano on which 31 contestants played the music competitively. He claimed that the instrument refused to quit playing the music until it was chopped into pieces and burned.

While Mendelssohn's model was the 1821 Konzertstück by Carl Maria von Weber, his indebtedness does not reduce the merits of his G minor Concerto, any more than Grieg's indebtedness to Schumann detracted from their stylistically related piano concertos in A minor. The melodic vocabulary and harmonic syntax are pure Mendelssohn, already a master at 17 and by 22 a consummate individualist.

This fast, fiery first movement begins with an uprushing, chromatic crescendo for the orchestra. The piano enters with staccato octaves that change themselves into the principal subject. The orchestra takes over and embellishes the main theme until the piano counters with a new, palpitantly lyrical subject. Both are developed rhapsodically, followed by a proud and virtuosic reprise. A fanfare leads without pause to the second movement, an E major Andante, song-structured, of tenderness and poignance that verge on melancholy. The principal theme is sung by violas, then cellos, with bassoons and horns in support. When this ultimately fades into silence, another fanfare heralds an ebullient rondo finale, Molto allegro e vivace, whose main theme is introduced by the piano. At the close, Mendelssohn ties everything together by recalling the lyrical second subject of the opening movement.