Dragged into the 19th Century

Felix Mendelssohn is often looked back on as having had a fortunate life, especially when compared to the tragic tales of many of his counterparts. He was born into a wealthy family, and had parents who could afford to give their four children a good education. He showed his musical gifts at a young age, starting piano lessons with his mother at age 6, and giving his first concert performance at the age of 9. One of his early composition teachers Carl Friedrich Zelter helped open many doors for this young budding composer, including several meetings with Goethe and an introduction to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which would strongly influence Mendelssohn. He travelled widely as a conductor and pianist, and lived a comfortable life writing in what was even then considered a fairly comfortable style of music. Whilst those around him such as Wagner, Berlioz, Chopin and Liszt were writing music that was bigger, faster, louder and harmonically more advanced, Mendelssohn was happy writing in a more traditional musical language.

Ferdinand Hiller was a close friend of Mendelssohn's for most of his life. Hiller is perhaps better known for being the person who cut off a lock of Beethoven's hair when he was on his deathbed than for any of his own compositions. Although fairly conservative himself, Hiller attempted to drag Mendelssohn into the 19th Century, especially when it came to his Piano Trio No. 1. Hiller had heard Chopin and Liszt play regularly in Paris, and when he first heard Mendelssohn's new trio he told the composer it sounded "old fashioned." Comparisons between original drafts and the final published edition show the piece was altered radically, something unusual for a composer who didn't normally care for public criticism.

The resulting marathon for the pianist gives us an idea of how fine a player Mendelssohn was. The metronome markings are absurdly fast, and even on the pianos of his time one would think they are impossible to achieve. One anecdote confirms his talent: violinist Joseph Joachim was to give a performance of the trio with Mendelssohn on the piano. The performance was about to begin when it was discovered that the piano part was missing. Upon hearing this Mendelssohn said "Never mind, put any book on the piano, and someone can turn from time to time, so that I need not look as though I played from heart."