Academic journal article Journal of Band Research

Felix Mendelssohn's Nocturno/overture, Opus 24: A Study in Context, Composition, and Performance

Academic journal article Journal of Band Research

Felix Mendelssohn's Nocturno/overture, Opus 24: A Study in Context, Composition, and Performance

Article excerpt


In 1824, when the popularity of the Harmonie ensemble as a vehicle for court music was waning, the fifteen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn composed what would become an enigmatic staple of the wind band repertoire. Mendelssohn's work, originally composed for the 11-member Harmonie heard at the spa at Bad Doberan but rescored by the composer in 1838 for military band, has been modified to fit modern band instrumentation numerous times, with each subsequent version presenting different performance anomalies. In 2005, urtext performing editions were produced under the expert editorship of Christopher Hogwood and published by Bärenreiter. How can a conductor reconcile these very different editions? Is there a deeper, more meaningful background to this work and what is the significance of its place in Mendelssohn's output? How might some of the challenges of performing this work be solved? In investigating the answers to these questions, this author sought the guidance of two of the world's foremost Mendelssohn scholars, R. Larry Todd and Christopher Hogwood, and he remains indebted to them for their invaluable contributions to this project.

Versions of Mendelssohn's composition have always been an important part of chamber wind, wind ensemble, and concert band repertoire as an example of a work for wind instruments by one of history's most respected composers and a representative of early 19th century compositional style. The following study seeks to broaden the contextual frame of this youthful example of Mendelssohn's gifted style in an attempt to help present informed performances that are free of unnecessary complications.

Biographical and Historical Context

Felix Mendelssohn was a product of the environment in which he was raised, born into one of Germany's most cultured 19th century families. The Mendelssohn home was a gathering place for conservative German intellectuals and philosophers organized by Moses Mendelssohn, Felix's grandfather. His father, Abraham, was a wealthy banker intent on providing his family with the best possible opportunities for education and culture. The Mendelssohn children were tutored at home on a very strict routine in subjects including music, history, Greek, Latin, science, literature, and drawing. Felix formed a particularly strong bond with his older sister, Fanny, who would become a successful composer in her own right.

Mendelssohn's education emphasized correctness, propriety, and formal clarity. His musical models included both the early Romantics of the 19th century (most notably Carl Maria von Weber, who will return to play a role later), but also 18th century masters such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. The primary teachers of Felix and Fanny were all clearly influenced by the foremost figures of the previous era. In 1816-17, during a trip to Paris, they studied with Marie Bigot, a pianist whose technique had been admired by Haydn and Beethoven.1 In 1818, Felix began studying with Ludwig Berger, a former pupil of Muzio Clementi. Under their tutelage, Mendelssohn advanced rapidly. He was a prodigious talent at the keyboard and a prolific composer at a very young age. He made his public debut as a pianist at age nine in 1818, and the Berlin Singakademie presented the first public performance of one of his compositions in 1819. That same year, Felix and Fanny began attending rehearsals of the Singakademie, where they were exposed to monumental works of 18th century sacred choral music, especially Bach and Handel. Also in 1819, the siblings began studying with the Singakademie's director, Karl Friedrich Zelter, who instructed them in figured bass, counterpoint, and composition, with emphasis on the works of earlier masters. Felix performed regularly at the Sunday musicales held in the Mendelssohn home, as well as in the salons and drawing rooms of significant political and cultural figures.

An experience of particular significance to Mendelssohn was his attendance at the premiere of Weber's Der Freischütz on June 18, 1821, in Berlin. …

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