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Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Felix Mendelssohn was born into an important and wealthy German family. His grandfather was the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His father founded a banking firm and converted to Christianity, largely for business reasons. Felix, however, embraced the Christian faith and became a devout Lutheran. He was widely regarded as one of the greatest child prodigies in the history of music. Mendelssohn was introduced to Johann Goethe and performed for him at the age of 12. Goethe, (who had also heard an earlier child prodigy, Mozart), praised Mendelssohn’s talents and considered Mozart’s works at the same age to be baby talk in comparison.

Mendelssohn came from a musical family. His sister was a talented composer and pianist. His aunt had been a student of one of J.S. Bach’s sons and had introduced Felix to Bach’s music. Mendelssohn became a great champion of Bach and Handel. He conducted the first performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion since Bach’s death and created the renewed interest in Bach’s music that exists today. He also conducted the premiere performance of Schubert’s 9th Symphony.  Mendelssohn enjoyed great success as a conductor of the famed Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and founded the Leipzig Music Conservatory. He gathered an impressive faculty at the Conservatory, including pianist Ignaz Moscheles, composer Robert Schumann, and string teachers Ferdinand David and Joseph Joachim. He also made 10 trips to Great Britain and became a favorite composer of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

His first great success as a composer came at the age of 16 with his String Octet, a mainstay of chamber music. He wrote concertos for the piano and violin, many piano pieces, such as the set of Songs Without Words, and 5 symphonies, including Symphony No. 5, “Reformation”, which was includes Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” in the last movement. He was also a dedicated student of scripture and wrote 2 oratorios in the style of Bach and Handel: Elijah and St. Paul. Perhaps his best known work today is his incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which includes the famous Wedding March. He is also known around the world for the music to the Christmas carol Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

Mendelssohn was a devoted family man. He was very close to his wife and to his sister, Fanny. When she died at an early age, it was a terrible shock that he never recovered from. He died from a series of strokes just a few months later at the age of 38. His great-great-grandson, George, was the founder of Vox Records, and important independent classical label. Mendelssohn wrote this advice to his nephew:

“Nothing is attained without the fulfillment of one fervent wish — May God be with you! This prayer comprises consolation and strength, and also cheerfulness in days to come.”

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Reading:

R. Larry Todd. Mendelssohn: A Life In Music.

John Coltrane: A Love Supreme

LoveSupremeThe Songs:

  1. Pt. 1: Acknowledgement
  2. Pt. 2: Resolution
  3. Pt. 3: Pursuance
  4. Pt. 4: Psalm

Personnel:

  • John Coltrane – soprano & tenor saxophone, vocals
  • McCoy Tyner – piano
  • Jimmy Garrison – bass
  • Elvin Jones – drums

Along with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s masterpiece, A Love Supreme, is often cited as one of the most important and influential jazz albums ever made. Recorded in one evening in December 1964, this album captures Coltrane at the height of his career. His quartet consisting of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums, had been together for four years. Coltrane’s playing was in the middle of a transition from his established hard bop style to the wilder free jazz style had he would play for the remaining three years of his life after this album. Coltrane took a simple 4 note theme (which became the mantra: a love supreme) and fashioned it into a 32 minute suite that encompassed his spiritual longings. Coltrane referred to the album as his “humble offering to God.” As pianist McCoy Tyner stated about the album, “We had been playing some of that music and we didn’t know what it was going to be until we got into the studio. And then it all came together.”

In his book about the album, Ashley Kahn said of it: “It’s an unusually complete vision of one man’s spirituality expressed through his art. Coltrane used the tools he had available and that he knew: a saxophone, a well-practiced quartet — even his own voice — to create music worthy of his creator.”

The album has been extremely influential across a range of musicians and artists. Rolling Stone ranked it #47 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums, while NPR listed it among the 100 Most Important Musical Works of the 20th Century. Musicians including Phil Lesh from The Grateful Dead and U2’s Bono have both cited its enormous influence or their life and art. It has been recorded many times, including performances from both Wynton and Branford Marsalis, guitarists Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, an R & B version from Will Downing, a punk version from the alternative rock band Gumball, a rap version by Jose James, and a chamber music version from the Turtle Island String Quartet. (Buy it here.)

The last few lines from the poem of the same name that Coltrane included in the liner notes sum up his musical approach, spiritual sensitivity, and the album itself:

“Thank you God. ELATION – ELEGANCE – EXALTATION – All from God. Thank you God. Amen.”

Suggested Reading:

Ashley Kahn. A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album.

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955)

Arthur Honegger was born in Le Havre, France to Swiss parents. He was a member of the composers group Les Six, which also included Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud. Some of his most frequently performed works are simply symphonic poems that expressed his interests and hobbies, such as Rugby and Pacific 231 (which was meant to imitate the steam locomotive and reflected his lifelong love of trains), as well as his homage to summer, the lyrical Pastorale d’été. Honegger’s compositional style was influenced by Bach and reflected his own ironic sense of humor, as shown by one of his most famous quoted observations: “There is no doubt that the first requirement for a composer is to be dead.”

Honegger’s Protestant upbringing was reflected in a number of his best compositions. His first work to achieve great success is the oratorio Le Roi David (King David). Two other masterworks with sacred themes are the oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bucher (about Joan of Arc), and the Symphony No. 3 (Symphonie Liturgique), which depicts parts of the Requiem Mass. His final work was the Cantate Noël (Christmas Cantata). At his funeral, the conductor Fritz Münch offered this eulogy:

“In his soul he was profoundly religious… it comes out in his music. … The older he became and the more experience he gained of life, the more he felt the need to give his great works religious endings. They came quite naturally to him, as a sign of his inner life, which was expressed in his music without his having to think about it.”

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Reading:

Harry Halbreich. Arthur Honegger.

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