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Mendel-thon 2021

As part of the Organ Giants series at St Paul's Cathedral over 2021/22, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the organ's rebuild, Samuel is thrilled to be embarking on a series to perform the complete organ works of renowned composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. This blog is intended as an extension of the project, providing insights 'behind the scenes' and offering Samuel's own thoughts on the music and context in which they were written. 

Felix Mendelssohn St Paul's.jpg

Deciding on the 'Complete Mendelssohn' 


As I prepare to complete my Mendelssohn odyssey tomorrow, it might be worth reflecting on what the ‘complete organ works’ of Mendelssohn is, and how I arrived at the programmes that you have seen/will see. With Mendelssohn, there is a level of ambiguity around what constitutes ‘complete’, and each performer has arrived to their own conclusion. For instance, exemplary recordings by Martin Schmeding, John Scott and Hans Fagius present ‘Mendelssohn Organ Works’, which implies there might be other pieces that they decided to omit, and all three of their contents differ slightly. Their surveys are nonetheless very comprehensive and, for me, they display some of the most electrifying playing on record. There are genuine reasons for these omissions, which have informed my own approach in deciding what to discard.


Firstly, one must consider with a piece whether Mendelssohn intended it to be performed or whether it was merely a draft for something which took another form at a later date. These instances are easily identifiable, as they share many similar characteristics and themes with other already established compositions. For example, a fugue in B-flat major from 1845 could arguably be presented as a separate piece, although much of its material is used in the Allegro maestoso from Sonata no. 4 (op. 65). Likewise, there is a charming march which was later reworked into the Andante Religioso for the same sonata. My choice to exclude these was therefore due to them clearly being part of the compositional process for other pieces which, while fascinating to examine from a musicological perspective, would have little impact in a concert.

Secondly, I evaluated pieces based on the context of their composition and whether Mendelssohn ever would have desired their performance. From my own personal perspective, there is a hefty selection of music I have written/arranged which I would dare not inflict on the world. There are a number of fughettas which Mendelssohn wrote in his teenage years, which are spread across three staves. As they are clearly intended for manuals only, and do not appear in any other forms, it is my belief that they were merely compositional exercises in which he was refining his counterpoint. How would he feel, were he alive today, if I performed these small technical studies before an audience? It would be similar to taking some of Herbert Howells’ chorale harmonisations from his time as a student at the Royal College of Music and putting them in a programme alongside some of his more accomplished organ works. When viewing these pieces in this way, their omission feels justified.

Incomplete pieces have been inserted in certain editions such as Baerenreiter and Novello. There is a truly beautiful Choral and Variation on Herzlich tut mich Verlangen, the original manuscript of which stops after fifty-nine bars. It has since been completed in various guises, most notably by Rudolf Lutz who managed to create an entire organ sonata, using this page of music as its starting point. Likewise, there is a youthful Fantasia and Fugue in g minor which Mendelssohn abandoned, incorporating motifs and structures akin to JS Bach. As Mendelssohn himself did not see fit to complete the works, I have decided they were not worth keeping in their original form as their abrupt halts would be quite disruptive in a concert setting. I do feel a degree of sadness about this, however, as they would have both been superb additions to the collection if they had been completed by him.

When gifted five recitals at St Paul’s for this series, my first priority was to devise five programmes that were enjoyable and varied. As there were so many fugal pieces already present, I was forced to exclude the Fugue in e minor from 1839, which was a painful decision as it is a superb piece; I felt the integrity of each individual concert was more important than one individual fugue. I hope to post it separately at a later date.

It was decided early that each concert should have one of the Organ Sonatas op.65 as its focal point, and the surrounding music would be complimentary to its scale and character. Mendel-thon 3 was structurally designed to incorporate the two shortest sonatas, as both works possess a virtuosic piece which is bookended by the same musical material, as discussed in an earlier blog post. The opening Allegro in B-flat major of Mendel-thon 5 is another ‘sonata reject’, which herald back to the beginning of this odyssey in which the Allegro Moderato Maestoso in C major, which commences Mendel-thon 1, has a similar character and context.

While I have elected to finish each Mendel-thon with a sonata, as they provide the most substantial music and have very uplifting culminations, the Finale to Sonata no. 6 (op. 65) was too delicate and touching a movement to end this cycle. I consequently chose to place it as the centrepiece, with pride of place, where I feel it belongs. The stirring Allegro, Chorale and Fugue in d minor is a tragically underrated work, and is another to be counted in the group of ‘sonata rejects’. Its final fugue is both grand and dignified and reminds me greatly of the majestic scope of the Amen from Handel’s Messiah. It was therefore the perfect way to bring this recital, and this journey, to a close.  

Sonata 3: The Beginning and the End

Those of you who know me well will be familiar with my obsession with Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which I regard as the pinnacle of 19th century culture. In recent weeks, I have been poring over the Bayreuth production of 1988, masterminded by Harry Kupfer (still available on DVD and Blu-Ray). I shan’t dwell on it, but one aspect of his interpretation has proved integral to my own perception of Mendelssohn’s Con Moto Maestoso from Sonata 3. As Das Rheingold commences and we are anticipating the low E-flat which launches the Ring Cycle, we are instead presented with the last peaceful image of Götterdämmerung, the aftermath of the destruction of the previous world, before the mystical creation of this new one begins. The cycle is thus bookended by the same image, with an intense journey in between. When that moment finally arrives in Götterdämmerung after 15 hours of pulsating life/death drama, the optimism is keenly felt as we have seen this image before but are wiser as a result of having experienced this odyssey. This feels similar to the experience felt in the Con Moto Maestoso.

The grandeur of Mendelssohn's opening march is slightly undermined by the instruction ‘Con Moto’ (with motion) as it suggests a degree of restlessness. It was originally composed in 1829 as the bridal march for his sister Fanny but due to a carriage accident, he was unable to attend and subsequently the piece was not performed. Coincidentally, he stayed in London with his friend Thomas Attwood (Organist of St Paul’s Cathedral and dedicatee of the Three Preludes and Fugues Op. 37) while he recovered from his injuries. In 1844, while compiling movements for his monumental sonata project, he wrote to Fanny:

Look out the A major organ piece I composed for your wedding … I have promised an English publisher [Coventry and Hollier] a whole book of organ pieces and as I am writing them out one after another, that old one suddenly occurred to me. I love the beginning, but detest the middle, and am completely rewriting it with another chorale fugue, on Aus tiefer Noth.’

In this correspondence I detect an enthusiastic fervour for his mammoth compositional undertaking (further felt in the epic Allegro, Chorale and Fugue in d minor), which I feel cannot be personified by a slower, dignified tempo. I therefore decided to disregard its original conception as a wedding march and take this section at more of a lick than people might be used to.


Bearing in mind the effect of the Kupfer Ring Cycle already outlined, I have chosen a more robust registration for the march’s triumphant return. Mendelssohn's double fugue in this movement is an intensely dark contrapuntal journey; building from its initial anxious trepidations into an explosive apex, only to be transformed into the sparkling radiance of the opening material. We have therefore come full circle back to where we started, as with Kupfer’s Ring Cycle. What makes the conclusion so powerful is being presented with the same image as we have seen at the beginning, but the perception of it has been revolutionised. Rather than a mere reiteration this is positive reinforcement, only gained from the trials and tribulations that have just been experienced.  Needless to say, the tranquillity of the following movement is fully deserved.

A Question of Structure

In my teenage years, I was frequently told that Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas were a “collection of randomly strewn-together pieces in similar keys”. I have not encountered this argument often in recent years, however I do not agree with this perception that the sonatas lack structure. The term the English publishers had used in their commission was “voluntaries”, which would suggest each piece’s independence. There are many movements which have their merits as individual works, however the opening ‘chorale’ of Sonata 5, the Andante recitativo of Sonata 1 and the fugue of Sonata 6 are all considerably weaker on their own but integral to their sonatas, so that argument cannot stand. In addition to this, the English voluntary had grown from its humble beginnings to multi-movement works (the development of which is covered in Daniel Moult’s The English Organ). Samuel Wesley had written several examples which were large scale, one of which Mendelssohn certainly knew as it was dedicated to his friend Thomas Attwood. In his preparation for the score’s publication, Mendelssohn was so meticulous with his markings that something as fundamental as the overarching structure would not have been overlooked. The choice of movements for each respective sonata is deliberate and if one ends quietly, there must be an artistic reason for that. By including Sonatas 3 and 5, Mendel-thon 3 incorporates the two sonatas which currently attract the most criticism for their structural shortcomings.

Sonata 3 presents two movements. The Con Moto Maestoso is universally acclaimed as one of Mendelssohn’s most exemplary efforts of organ writing; in terms of emotional drama and contrapuntal mastery it is perhaps the finest organ piece since JS Bach. It is followed by a serene miniature of approximately three minutes, which brings the sonata to a gently understated close. Sources suggest that Mendelssohn had planned to compose a finale but never did. The resulting effect of the Andante Tranquillo, however, is that of a gentle afterthought. Its ¾ time signature ensures a lilting quality and it reminds me of the Airs which Handel often included at the end of his opera overtures. If this is indeed a voluntary, then this moment is surely intended to settle the listener before the service begins, after the intensity of the Con Moto Maestoso. I will revisit Sonata 3 in a subsequent post, as my interpretation could perhaps prompt some questions.

Sonata 5 is perhaps the most underplayed of the set, arguably due to the perplexing opening. It is titled ‘Chorale’ but does not explicitly match to one (although shares many similarities with Dir, dir Jehova, will ich singen) so it is probably original, and marked Andante. He rejected the Theme and Variations in D for this sonata (also marked Andante), it is evident from this that he valued the overall structure of the work over the quality of each respective piece, as the Theme and Variations is considerably superior on its own. Following this Andante faux-hymn is a highly contrasting, deeply expressive song without words. It was imaginatively titled Andante con moto. Personally, the ‘Con Moto’ needs to be emphasised, as it is driven by a very active pizzicato bass line. This provides juxtaposition to the previous understated, dignified movement and simultaneously forms a subtle build up towards the finale. The Allegro Maestoso, similarly to the Con Moto Maestoso from Sonata 3, opens with an introduction and closes with an altered version of that material. The central section is a joyous toccata; an exciting texture of bubbling triplet quavers accompanies a soaring new theme, passed between different voices. It has quickly become a personal favourite from the entire set, and it is a superb arrival from the previous movements. Rather than a “random assortment”, the ‘crescendo’ purpose of this sonata is very clear to me.

Hans Davidsson’s excellent recent release of the Mendelssohn sonatas re-examines the set as a single entity; an eighteen movement cycle. Mendelssohn himself premiered them this way in a single concert and it is certainly an avenue worth exploring. It is therefore open-ended; some movements can be performed as individual pieces but by the mere existence of the others, they were surely intended to be more than that and their assemblage cannot be casual. My biggest hope is that Sonata 5 earns the recognition it deserves and would be overjoyed to see if more frequently included, whether as voluntaries or in recital.  

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel


It would be remiss of me to embark on a series exploring the organ works of Felix Mendelssohn without acknowledging the integral role of his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel. The closeness of their relationship was such that they spent their youth inseparable from one another; Fanny adored her younger brother and evidently relished in his buoyantly enthusiastic personality. While Felix is widely regarded as the prodigy of the Mendelssohn clan, Fanny displayed an equally rare musical talent. They grew up in a highly cultured household, including regular family readings of Shakespeare plays and concerts of the siblings’ latest compositions. Throughout nineteenth century society, including by the eminent polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, sister and brother were acknowledged as the bright future of European music. While unfortunate and indeed uncomfortable to view from the 21st century, it is unquestionable that Fanny’s gender compromised her public career in the 19th-century musical world. As a result of social prejudice, she was actively discouraged from her studies by her father Abraham. While this must have seemed a devastating blow, Fanny nonetheless remained highly active in composition and throughout their lives the bond with Felix remained strong.  There are over 1,000 letters between the pair which survive; a testament to this unbreakable connection. Fanny’s marriage in 1829 to the painter William Hensel further helped her artistic contributions to flourish, as he found it intolerable to watch her talents go to waste. Felix too was highly encouraging of her musical activities, and it is supremely fortunate that her prolific compositional output has survived and, in recent decades, become performed with increasing frequency.


A number of Fanny’s compositions were published under Felix’s name so they could be performed; including a set of songs which Queen Victoria professed to be her favourite of his pieces. At this meeting between monarch and composer in 1842, Felix did confess to the Queen that the music was, in fact, by his sister. While he relentlessly toured Europe as soloist and conductor, Felix’s correspondence with Fanny displays that she not only remained his confidant but also relished news of his travels. The suppression of her own career, in which she could have perhaps achieved similar heights of European stardom, seems to have not deterred her enjoyment of his success. It may be an interesting footnote (particularly for fellow Wagnerians) that their correspondence suggests the siblings intended to write an opera based on the Song of the Nibelungs. It is regrettable that they never lived to bring this epic to fruition, as it would have provided a fascinating forerunner to Wagner’s monumental effort in 1876. When Fanny suffered a devastating stroke in 1847, Felix reportedly collapsed at the news, and died shortly afterwards.


As she was so integral to Felix’s life, I felt it vital to include her in the Mendel-thon. The Prelude in F major, one of only two original organ compositions, was only written due to Felix. He had promised to compose a wedding march for Fanny’s wedding to Hensel in 1829, which he duly completed. While in England, however, he was involved in a carriage accident and suffered a broken leg, meaning he was unable to return in time for the wedding. The march never arrived. These were the years before the famous movement from A Midsummer Night’s Dream was even composed, so there were no suitable alternatives. Fanny’s solution was to hastily compose a piece herself, despite having no background in organ music. The resulting work is certainly fit for purpose; it is brief but demonstrates her gift for melody. It is joyous, but not pompous. It is marked Andante (walking pace) which seems logical for music intended for a procession. The many octaves employed throughout the work imply that the church’s organ was modest in its resources, so she evidently knew enough about organ writing to make a big sound from a small instrument. On the organ of St Paul’s Cathedral, I have opted to omit these as the tonal range there is far greater. Felix’s original offering was later incorporated into the opening movement from Sonata No 3 in A major (Op 65, No 3), which will open the next Mendel-thon concert on Sunday 14th March. More about that work in due course...

Back to Bach

I write this as my esteemed colleague Simon Johnson commenced his recital series on Sunday, exploring the influence of JS Bach on a plethora of superb composers with truly monumental repertoire. This has led me to reflect on the effect Bach had on Mendelssohn, for which ‘prominent’ would be a wild understatement. Outside of Lutheranism, it is arguable that the works of Bach were Mendelssohn’s personal religion. The organ music he composed in his teenage years is a firm indicator that this devotion precedes his famous discovery of the St Matthew Passion by some years, and it is one of these works which could be described as the ‘centrepiece’ of my Mendel-thon recital no.2.

The Passacaille in c minor of 1823 is as indebted to Bach’s masterwork as the name suggests, although naturally on a smaller scale. It puts me in mind of Italian artists, for whom the first steps of traditional training were spent copying the art of previous generations. Caravaggio, for instance, was expected to study the old masters during his apprenticeship; making sketches of celebrated paintings with the aim that he learn from their example and produce his own artistic offerings in a similar idiom. While there was no established musical equivalent to this, it would not be a far leap to see the Passacaille in this vein. Following the imposing theme, the set of variations share common characteristics with those composed by Bach; a chordal section, running quavers, exhilarating triplets, lighter arpeggios, and an intense statement of the theme as the piece prepares to close, complete with colourful harmonic treatment. It is clear therefore that the piece owes its existence to Bach’s BWV 582 and it is perhaps revealing that the fourteen-year-old Mendelssohn was so familiar with this work from such an early age.

Mendelssohn’s early exposure to the organ included his lessons at the St. Marienkirche in Berlin, a large instrument by Joachim Wagner. That Wagner was nicknamed the ‘Silbermann of Berlin’ is a good signal of his building style, in addition to the high standard of the organs he created. It is conceivable that these experiences fed into the composition of this piece, so I have sought to reflect that in my performance on Sunday. At the top of the score, Mendelssohn has marked ‘Volles Werk’ (full organ). This could perhaps be an impetuous request by a teenager overawed by the grandiose sound of a Wagner organ. The instrument at St Paul’s would produce a radically different sound so it does not feel appropriate to follow this instruction. Instead, I have carefully selected the sonority to respect the intention behind the marking without compromising the musical material. Considering the console layout on Wagner organs and consequently the organists’ inability to change stops without a console assistant, I have elected to perform the work on the same registration throughout, just as I would for the Bach Passacaille BWV 582. While initially maintaining a steady pulse, I have elected to push the tempo in certain places where I feel the direction leads which I hope gives a more impulsive, Romantic character. There are certain tempo markings strategically placed by the composer which present interpretive challenges; one variation feels as if there is a sudden slam of the breaks, leading to a lighter arpeggiated section which is requested to be slightly faster before a return to the opening tempo. My interpretation treats these seriously and I use the articulation of the preceding bars to adjust the music’s character, meaning the ears are prepared before the tempo itself changes. Seeking to capture the youthful enthusiasm of Mendelssohn the teenage organ student, I shall be improvising a few ornamentations throughout the piece as I believe he might have done himself, had he sat down with Bach’s BWV 582. My hope from this performance is that, in contrast to the mature composer they have encountered in the six organ sonatas, listeners might perhaps catch a glimpse of the young Mendelssohn, naïve and impish but nonetheless a genius and brimming with creativity and a willingness to explore.



Why Mendelssohn at St Paul’s? While he evidently loved the Cathedral, for he visited ten times during his short life, the building has been changed almost beyond recognition from his era. Imposing statues have moved, the striking colours of those iconic mosaics were added and, perhaps most significant of all for music lovers, the Wren organ case was split in two by Henry Willis and a new instrument installed within. The St Paul’s that Mendelssohn knew is now a long-since faded memory immortalised only by paintings; the building’s essence remains the same but its defining characteristics, on full display in numerous other churches throughout the city of London, have been intensified and beautified into the edifice which has since become deservedly prestigious. 

I nonetheless feel a parallel can be drawn between building and composer. Examining Mendelssohn’s compositional approach, the backbone is undeniably indebted to the Baroque era. He famously championed the works of J.S. Bach and his influence appears time and again in Mendelssohn’s organ music, which will be explored in greater detail in my subsequent posts. His harmonic language is, however, very much of his time and the revolutions imposed by Beethoven on wider music is supremely evident. So with Mendelssohn we have a composer who has solid Baroque foundations, ‘Romantically elevated’ by nineteenth century stylistic reformations. Cathedral and composer can therefore be seen to complement one another perfectly.  

The complete organ works of Mendelssohn span his entire life and arguably form a ‘quality crescendo’. There are youthful works, rarely played, which demonstrate a prodigious talent but potentially lack sophistication; the ‘middle works’ such as the Three Preludes and Fugues which are a very strong foundation for his new style of organ writing; culminating in the Six Organ Sonatas in 1845, published two years before his death. They are consequently a vivid illustration of his musical development, from his earliest years to his last.

Quests to perform the ‘complete works’ of composers have never appealed to me before, as I have chosen each piece in my repertoire based entirely on my desire to learn it rather than any larger plan. This project, however, fills me with great excitement as I continue to delve further into my research. Putting each piece in its historical context and understanding his life at the time of writing makes them increasingly three-dimensional, as well as reminding me that Mendelssohn was a living, breathing human made of flesh and blood, which is sometimes easy to forget when you are staring at hundreds of dots on a page.  Material from one piece will be reworked into another, recognising this makes Mendelssohn’s composition process leap from the pages. So despite my initial trepidations, this process has already enlightened me greatly. My hope with this blog is to share with you my experiences in learning the music; offer interpretations I might gain from the hours spent looking over the scores and provide a more three-dimensional experience to this recital series.   

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