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Critique: Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words

Updated on May 20, 2020

Songs Without Lyrics

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Mendelssohn's Music

Perhaps a facetious statement on my part. But Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Dvorak are 3 of the greatest lyricists of the 19th century. To the laymen, the word "lyricism" is a derivative from the word, "Lyre." This is because thousands of years ago in Greece, it was unheard of for a poet to compose a poem without music, hence the assistance of the "Lyre," which was the ancestor of the modern day Harp. You'll notice (if you haven't, you will now) Mendelssohn makes reference to the harp and spring in some of his "Songs Without Words." This is because there isn't a more powerful potent for creativity than the harp, spring, and poets. To say Mendelssohn's music is lyrical, is like saying McDonald's is famous for selling burger. In fact, even when Mendelssohn picks up speed in his delightful Allegros, he still remains lyrical. Call it a curse or blessing? For me, an ardent lover of his music, it's always a blessing. Period. Mendelssohn and Mozart wrote more music per capita than just about anyone else you or I can think of at the moment. Remember, Mendelssohn died at 37 and Mozart died at 35, so you do the math. Beethoven and Rachmaninoff wrote a smidgen in contrast to the previously aforementioned. And yet, Beethoven died at 56 years of age; and, Rachmaninoff died at 70 years of age, or a few days before his 70th Birthday. In Rachmaninoff's case, I'm going to be cocky and assume he probably only wrote approx. 20% of the amount of music that Mozart did, yet he lived twice as long.

Mendelssohn's Solo Piano Music

Just like Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninoff, Mendelssohn was a concert pianist too. In fact, Mendelssohn was a pianist, organist, conductor, and composer. Just try and top that resume. And, just like the previously aforementioned, his piano music can be challenging at times. It's not surprise that great pianists wrote technically challenging piano music. However, when Chopin and Mendelssohn are lyrical, they ease up a bit and just focus on the song like aspect of composition, while easing up on the technical side. However, and that said, you have composers like Liszt and Rachmaninoff who rarely if ever ease up on anything. This is because they're considered to be the 2 greatest piano composers who happened to be great pianists, hence rarely if ever giving us pianist an easy time. Not the case with Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Grieg, who can be lyrical while keeping it subdued. Beethoven is something of a conundrum -- he can be lyrical and emotional, but also difficult and complex all rolled up into one.

Classical Music Has No Lyrics

This may be the first time you've heard this, or it may not be? If music has literature, then it's not 100% music. Whether popular songs, operas, chorale symphonies, musicals, masses, etc., etc., etc., if there are words, then it's not 100% music, because literature is involved. Someone once told me, "popular songs are written by average folks, not by Virgil, Horace, or Shakespeare." Be that as it may. Whether it was written by someone with a PhD in English, or written by an 18 year old uneducated gas station attendant, if it has lyrics, then it's a poem. Period. So, popular songs that some of you until now have thought were simple generic songs/popular music, are actually poems. Some of the most beautiful poems/songs have been written by people who never went to college, or even finished high school. Mendelssohn is trying to convey that regardless of words, his solo piano compositions have power of poetry and lyricism.

Mendelssohn Wrote 49 Songs Without Words

This is a fallacy. Mendelssohn wrote approx. 55 Songs Without Words, but because a handful of them were published posthumously, it's falsely believed he only wrote 49.

The Best of the Bunch

Like all artists, some of Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words are more original and profound than others. I'll try to post the more creative and famous ones.

Spring Song

Is without a shadow of a doubt, Mendelssohn's most famous composition after his Wedding March (Incidental Music to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream). I can't recall seen a cartoon when I was a child that didn't include snippets of this piece. And yet, as silly as it may sound to some, it's tender and lovely. To reiterate, poet, spring, and the harp = creativity. You'll notice Mendelssohn doing something known as "Arpeggiando" umpteen times -- this is a technique in which the piano tries to emulate the harp.

Here's an old recording by the great Vladimir Horowitz


Mendelssohn's "Spring Song"

"Reverie"

Here's another one of Mendelssohn's poetic lyricism. In this recording, I'm the one performing at the piano.

"Reverie"

Songs Without Words, Op. 19, No. 1

I love Brahms; he's one of my favorite composers of all times. As are Mendelssohn and Chopin. However, both Chopin and Mendelssohn could easily kick Brahms' 'you know what' when it came to writing lullabies. Not sure who is performing, but if you're an expectant mother and would like to expose your baby/fetus to enjoy classical music, then here's as good a chance as any.

Songs Without Words, Op. 19, No. 1

Summation

Mendelssohn's Solo Piano Music is as close to nature as one can get, metaphorically speaking that is. His works musically bring out the spirit of forests, lakes, springs, mountains, and the sun, as few composers have been able to capture before/since.

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