“I am sending you my Sonata in B-flat Opus 106 as a present on your birthday!” declared the adolescent Felix Mendelssohn to his sister Fanny, in reverent and joking reference to the celebrated Sonata in B-flat, Opus 106 of Beethoven, the formidable “Hammerklavier”. Though they never had any significant personal relationship, the prodigy received constant cultural guidance from the master of Bonn through the intermediary of Goethe, who was Beethoven’s frequent collaborator, Felix’s mentor, and a frequent houseguest of the Mendelssohn’s. Young Felix wrote his ambitious, grand Sonata, but it was up to a musicologist to assign it the portentous opus number for its posthumous publication.
A revealing coincidence: Mendelssohn wrote all of his piano Sonatas (they number four to six, depending on how one counts) before Beethoven's death in 1827, the Sonata Opus 106 (Mendelssohn's!) being the last. It would have been difficult for a young musical prodigy not to be influenced by the polemic aroused by the appearance of Beethoven's last five piano Sonatas. The young teenager eagerly chose his sides and lent to the cause his own efforts in the Sonata genre by solidly grounding them - melodically, rhythmically, tonally, structurally - in these cultural manifestos. Mendelssohn’s “Hammerklavier” borrows clearly from its precursor the heroic tonality of B-flat major, the rhythmic contour of its primary theme, the fugal character of the development, and its four-movement layout, the last two movements being connected by a transition passage. Contained within this Beethovenien architecture are the finer details which reveal the unmistakable signature of the composer – the unruffled musical discourse; the fleet, efficient treatment of the piano; the infallible dramatic timing and control. They display the original, already mature and distinct style of the Mendelssohn of the Octet and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, works contemporary with the Sonatas. Especially noteworthy are the middle two movements, superb examples of, on the one hand, his innate sensitivity to the scherzo atmosphere and, on the other, the direct, unadorned lyricism found in his Songs Without Words.
Mendelssohn’s reputation has constantly suffered, in the words of Glenn Gould, from the impression “that he was less innovation-prone than some of his colleagues, that his music is therefore less “original” and, one somehow is left to assume, less valuable.” Virgil Thomson’s keen analysis of the relation between a composer’s income and the nature of his music suggested that Mendelssohn’s privileged environment – as the son of an aristocratic banker – favored an output of “playful music, [seeking] charm at the expense of emphasis. He abounds in witty ingenuities.” Critics of Mendelssohn’s Sonatas in particular – and they are many, this admirer being able to find only one begrudging compliment in five piano repertoire guides, with a sixth choosing to ignore their existence completely! – too often misread the unashamed homage to Beethoven as a sign of a lack of inspiration and are too often distracted by the smooth veneer to begin to appreciate the more profound nature of the works. They see only a precocious teenager copying his idol, showing off his inventiveness and agility at the keyboard.
In the final analysis, one needs to consider the music itself. And one will find that the sentiment there is pure; the naturalness with which Mendelssohn incorporates his invention and his imitation attests to his sincerity. Whether the musical elements are original or founded upon models is of little importance; it speaks with conviction to the listener. Personally, I was captivated by the tranquility, the vivacity and the power in Mendelssohn's Opus , as well as by the detailed craftsmanship and his ingenious solutions to complex transitions, long before discovering their predecessor in Beethoven's Opus 106. This revelation did not, I must admit, discourage me from appreciating the latter.
Frederic Chiu ©