Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born on February 3, 1809, in Hamburg, then under Napoleonic rule, and died in Leipzig, Saxony, on November 4, 1847. Carrying out a plan that went back to 1838, Mendelssohn completed his Violin Concerto in E minor on September 16, 1844, and it was played for the first time on March 13, 1845, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus by Ferdinand David with the Danish composer Niels Gade conducting.
When Felix Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843, one of the first faculty appointments he made was Ferdinand David, a violinist held in the highest regard as soloist, as a model concertmaster, as quartet leader, and teacher.
Ferdinand David was more than the first violinist to play the Mendelssohn Concerto; the work was intended for him from the beginning. David and Mendelssohn had been friends since 1825.
In the development of Mendelssohn’s Concerto, David played a role parallel to that taken a generation later by violinist Joseph Joachim with the Brahms Concerto. Mendelssohn’s Concerto is in fact the first in the distinguished series of violin concertos written by pianist-composers with the assistance of eminent violinists.
In his G minor and D minor piano concertos, Mendelssohn gives us just enough of an orchestral accompaniment to propel the soloist into action. In the Violin Concerto, he reduces the orchestra’s initial participation still further. There is only a backdrop for not as much as two seconds by the quietly pulsating drums and plucked basses before the violin sings its famous melody.
A couple of years earlier, in his Scottish Symphony, Mendelssohn experimented with the idea of going from movement to movement without a break. Here he takes the plan a step further, not merely eliminating the pauses but actually constructing links. The second movement Andante emerges mysteriously from the close of the first movement and between the Andante and the finale there is a wistful connecting intermezzo, only fourteen measures long. Only strings accompany the violin, setting the stage for the fanfare that announces the finale.