Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born into a wealthy Hamburg family in 1809, but shortly afterwards, when the French occupied the city, they moved to Berlin. On the paternal side, Mendelssohn was the grandson of the 18th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), but was not raised in the Jewish faith.
The Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings in D minor was written in 1823 when he was 14 years old. Mendelssohn composed the work to be performed with his violin teacher and friend, Eduard Rietz in a private concert at the Mendelssohn home in Berlin. Following this private performance, Mendelssohn revised the scoring, adding winds and timpani. A public performance was given on July 3, 1823 at the Berlin Schauspielhaus.
As Mendelssohn’s career developed he was almost universally lauded as a musical genius. What is more, Mendelssohn also became the artistic director and chief conductor of The Gewandhaus in Leipzig, a venue that has long been recognized as one of the most important performing centers in Europe. Mendelssohn not only initiated the revival of music by Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart, he also assured that his brand of musical historicism was disseminated throughout Europe and beyond.
When Felix Mendelssohn died at the incredibly young age of thirty-eight, he simply had not yet made arrangements for literally hundreds of unpublished musical manuscripts and artworks, alongside thousands of personal letters to and from the composer.
It was Richard Wagner who declared “Judaism the evil conscience of our modern civilization” in his 1850 treatise Judaism in Music. And when Wagner declared Mendelssohn’s music “an icon of degenerate decadence,” some part of the public unfortunately agreed.
We forget that Wagner was only four years Mendelssohn’s junior. The reason for Wagner’s vitriol was simple: he felt threatened. In the years after his death, Mendelssohn’s influence made him the most important figure in German musical culture and before Wagner could launch his musical and social revolutions, he believed he needed to destroy Mendelssohn.
The rise of the Third Reich in the 20th century did further damage to Mendelssohn’s reputation in Germany. The Nazis tore down his statue that had stood before the Leipzig Gewandhaus, banned Mendelssohn’s music but left his grave unscathed in the Trinity Cemetery of Berlin and liquidated the family banking house.
But they were unable to expunge Mendelssohn completely from German culture. When Richard Strauss was asked to write new music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he replied that he could not improve on Mendelssohn’s music.
In later years the propaganda machinery of Nazi Germany added Mendelssohn’s name to various lists of forbidden artists. At that time, according to Stephen Somary, founder and artistic director of the Mendelssohn Project, “a majority of Mendelssohn manuscripts — both published and unpublished — were housed in the basement of the Berlin State Library. To protect them they were smuggled to Warsaw and Krakow during the winter of 1936/37, and when those cities fell under Nazi control in 1939, they were hurriedly smuggled out again and disbursed to locations wide and far between.” Following WWII, the majority of manuscripts remained buried behind the Iron Curtain. Among these items of course was the Concerto for Piano, Violin, and Strings.
The concerto remained unpublished until 1960, when the Astoria Verlag in Berlin issued a miniature score, edited and arranged by Clemens Schmalstich. Finally, in 1999 the 1960 miniature score was reissued in a scholarly edition with the wind and timpani parts added.