Violin Sonata in D minor (1826)
“How to finish a Mendelssohn sonata”
Completed Version by David Louie (2015)
Sheet music score available exclusively at davidlouiepiano.com/Shop
The ARC Ensemble recorded a new version of a previously incomplete Mendelssohn sonata, reconstructed from fragments by Canadian pianist David Louie. Here, Louie takes us through the process of reconstructing a work by one of our greatest composers.Classical-music.com
Preface to the Edition
In early 2010, the ARC Ensemble’s artistic director, Simon Wynberg, invited me to look at an unfinished work by Felix Mendelssohn. The piece was to feature in the ensemble’s Music in Exile series, included in a program that examined National Socialism’s aversion to the composer, and the dispersal of his works during the regime’s control. Scored for piano and violin, this undated, single-movement “Sonata” is part of the Mendelssohn-Archiv in the Stattsbilbiothek zu Berlin (MWV Q 18). It is thought that the piece was composed in 1825-26, when Mendelssohn was fifteen or sixteen years old, and it consists of 366 measures of unbroken content. So its performance is possible, although it lacks a conclusion, sputtering out with the iconic rhythmic motif that begins Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, here stated pianissimo.
Mendelssohn’s fragment has promising musical potential and contains several striking melodic and harmonic ideas. It is possible to append an ending, as violinist Benjamin Bowman and I did in our first performance, but it still lacks a cohesive sonata-form structure (its title notwithstanding) and the writing, particularly for the violin, is occasionally sketchy or incomplete; deficiencies uncharacteristic of Mendelssohn’s finished works, with their sophisticated craftsmanship and mastery of classical architecture.
A year after my introduction to the piece I decided to undertake a complete reconstruction. I cut the fragment into smaller parts, and, using the technique of collage, organized them so they constituted a classical sonata movement. I wanted to avoid the introduction of a foreign compositional style so I preserved, in some form or another, all of the material contained in the fragment, including large sections in their entirety. The opening Adagio introduction was retained virtually in its original form. Mendelssohn’s extended passages modulating into distant tonalities (E minor, C minor, and F-sharp major) were also preserved, with a few small alterations, and were incorporated into the development section of my reconstruction. Any resulting lacunae (the second theme in the exposition and the final coda were notably lacking) were filled using newly-composed material that expanded on Mendelssohn’s thematic ideas. The original common-time signature of Mendelssohn’s Allegro molto has been amended to cut-time and some measures have been expanded, with occasional redistribution or transposition of material. Figurations that could amplify the texture were culled from other works by the composer, including the Double Concerto for Piano and Violin. In the recapitulation of my reconstruction, listeners may recognize the melodic peroration of the second theme as a borrowing from Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto.
Since 2011, Benjamin Bowman and I have performed my completed version of the Mendelssohn Violin Sonata in D minor (a fragment no longer) a number of times in ARC Ensemble concerts, notably at the Concertgebouw and Wigmore Hall. These live concert performances have helped to further refine the work and its reception has been both illuminating and rewarding. A recording, produced by David Frost and released in 2016, represents the culmination of this process.
Mendelssohn must have had ample reason to set aside this sonata and leave it unfinished. Perhaps his attention was diverted by one of a myriad of other musical projects that date from the same time –– songs, the third piano quartet, the string octet? Or perhaps he was slightly embarrassed by how much his idolization of Beethoven had influenced this particular effort, especially since Beethoven was the most famous composer of the day. Today Beethoven’s influence on Mendelssohn’s prodigious and precocious talent can be unashamedly acknowledged, an influence that I have played up in my reconstruction of this sonata.
I wish to thank Simon Wynberg, Benjamin Bowman, Florence Minz, and Dr. Peter Simon for their generous advice and encouragement.