Felix Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49

Written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

Felix Mendelssohn’s childhood contradicts the Romantic idea that great art must emerge from great struggle. He enjoyed more advantages than perhaps any other composer: he was born to an educated and wealthy family (grandson of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and son of a prominent banker who converted to Protestantism); had natural gifts for music, drawing, and languages; and had parents who nurtured his talents without exploiting him as a child prodigy. They hired whole orchestras to try out his youthful compositions in their sprawling Berlin home and provided him with the best teachers of all kinds. He attended the University of Berlin, becoming the first major composer to pursue a modern university education. In the fall of 1835, at age 26, he was named director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. And in 1840 his friend Schumann declared him “the Mozart of the 19th century.”

The comment came in response to Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor. The piece is not so much reminiscent of Mozart’s style as it is of his sense of movement and progression (and of his central place in the music of the day). In contrast to composers like Beethoven who created drama through hard cuts and delineated transitions, Mendelssohn was more inclined to cross-fade and blur between ideas, creating a suspended, arching flow. This is as much the result of craftsmanship as it is of intuition: there’s often a sense of a worked-out structure in the background, like an artist’s sketch under the paint. The trio’s surface details were also carefully considered and revised between its first draft and Gewandhaus premiere—in reaction to a friend’s criticism, Mendelssohn rewrote much of the piano part, updating it with inspiration from the latest sparkling piano textures of Chopin and Liszt.

The Music

Mendelssohn builds the first movement around two indelible melodies, both introduced in the cello. The first is expressive and urgent, the second is warmer, whimsical, and catchy.

The second movement is often called a “song without words,” a genre Mendelssohn developed in his solo piano pieces. Here its lyricism is heightened by the violin and cello, and its poignancy grows through the upward- reaching romance of its extended middle section.

The third movement is an unmistakable Mendelssohn Scherzo: jittery, exuberant, and high-pitched. A long-short-short rhythm gives the Finale a folksy feel; at times it takes on a mischievous character, and eventually finds contrast with more lyrical lines. But the opening rhythm just won’t stop turning up in reaction to anything else that tries to happen, demanding to be shut down by a climatic coda and unanswerable cadence.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.