Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Composer
6 Organ Sonatas, Op.65
Musicology:As the foremost figure in the nineteenth century revival of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, it is hardly surprising that Mendelssohn should have turned to the Baroque master's own instrument, the organ, throughout his career. Mendelssohn's six Organ Sonatas, Op. 65 (1844), came into being as the result of a commission for a group of voluntaries of average difficulty; the project quickly evolved into these sonatas, which make considerable demands indeed on the player. (Mendelssohn himself was an accomplished performer on the instrument.)
6 Organ Sonatas, Op.65Key: D
Pr. Instrument: Organ
Organ Sonata No.1 in F-
- 1.Allegro moderato e serioso
- 3.Andante Recitative. Allegro assai vivace
- 4.Allegro assai vivace
Organ Sonata No.2 in C-/C
- 1.Grave. Adagio
- 2.Allegro maestoso e vivace
- 3.Fuga: Allegro moderato
Organ Sonata No.3 in A
Organ Sonata No.4 in D
- 4.Allegro maestoso
Organ Sonata No.5 in D
Organ Sonata No.6 in D-/D
- 1.Chorale: Andante sostenuto. Allegro molto
- 3.Finale: Andante
Each of the sonatas, save one, is based on a chorale motive. The Sonata No. 1 in F minor, for example, takes the melody Was mein Gott will, das gescheh' allzeit as material for its opening movement, further using its chordal progressions as the basis for the entire work's harmonic structure. As with the trio sonatas of Bach and his contemporaries, this piece follows a logical sequence of keys, moving inexorably toward a triumphant restatement of the principal theme after a fugato section which opens in F minor and progresses into the major mode by the close.
The Sonata No. 2 in C minor is the only work in the group to avoid chorale references entirely. The Sonata No. 3 in A major uses a march theme that Mendelssohn had originallly written for the wedding of his sister Fanny in 1839. This is followed by a fugue in the minor mode, in which a new chorale melody replaces the conventional repetition of fugal material. This theme also receives fugal treatment before the work ends with a restful Andante tranquillo postlude.
The Sonata No. 4 in B flat major opens with a bipartite Allegro in which flowing and highly rhythmical elements are juxtaposed and sometimes subtly combined. The second movement, Andante religioso, was originally titled "March," though this designation was removed prior to publication. An Allegretto in a pastoral triple meter fulfills the role of a scherzo before the sonata ends in a blaze of glory with a movement marked Vivace e maestoso, which also incorporates a complex fugal episode.
The penultimate Sonata No. 5 in D major is a reflection on a chorale attributed to Mendelssohn himself. The last of the group, the Sonata No. 6 in D minor, is in three substantial movements. The first, based on Vater unser im Himmelreich, presents five variations on this theme, each of which reflects the evolving devotional sentiments of the original German text. Perhaps reflecting Mendelssohn's strong Anglophiliac sympathies, the finale reaches its impressive climax with a setting of the well-loved English hymn When I survey the wondrous cross.
© All Music Guide
Organ Sonata No.3 in A, Op.65, No.3The third Organ Sonata in Felix Mendelssohn's collection of six, Op. 65, is the briefest and perhaps the brightest of the lot. It has just two movements, and the A major of the work is an especially shiny kind; it is true, though, that the entire mid-section of the extensive first movement occupies A minor and presents enough wandering chromatic activity enough to avoid tedium. As he did in the Organ Sonata No. 1, the composer introduces a Lutheran chorale in the first movement. This time the famous "Aus tiefer Not" is the tune chosen, and, in stark contrast to the quiet, unruffled entrance of the chorale tune in Op. 65, No. 1, it enters boldly in the pedals 40 measures into the Con moto maestoso first movement, surrounded by swirling, four-voice counterpoint.
The movement begins in a regal manner, lightly ornamented, sweetly but firmly scored; a move is made, however, to the minor mode, and polyphony starts up to pave the way to the chorale entrance. As the phrases of "Aus tiefer Not" reveal themselves, the pace of the music picks up, and soon sixteenth notes are all the rage (the chorale cantus firmus is, of course, in slow notes throughout), eventually climaxing in a virtuosic passage for the pedals that gradually simmers down into a short reprise of the opening A major homophony.
The second movement occupies just two pages of music; it is an Andante tranquillo whose charming melody came from the same stock as some of the Songs without Words.
© Blair Johnston, Rovi
Organ Sonata No.1 in F-/F major, Op.65, No.1When Felix Mendelssohn accepted a commission to write some organ voluntaries in 1844 he had no idea how fruitful his work would prove to be. Within a year, he had in fact composed no voluntaries at all, but six full multi-movement organ sonatas, to which he affixed the label Op. 65 (thus affirming the volume's significance, since only one other volume of Mendelssohn organ music earned itself an opus number). Work on the first of the sonatas, the Organ Sonata No. 1 in F major/F minor, Op. 65, No. 1, was mostly complete by Christmas of 1844; and Mendelssohn did substantial revisions while preparing all of Opus 65 for publication in 1845.
The Organ Sonata No. 1 is in four movements. Mendelssohn's original blueprint for these four movements was, however, quite a bit different than the one that ultimately went to print—as a matter of fact, the original first and second movements were cast out of the sonata altogether and replaced with the two we know today (the originals do, however, survive as independent pieces—the Fugue in F minor and the Chorale in A flat major). The final version, then, opens with an Allegro moderato e serioso in F minor, fully and richly scored in fortissimo homophony at the beginning and continuing along contrapuntal lines of nearly equal strength. The movement is a fascinating one: 40 measures in, Mendelssohn reaches into the tool-kit of traditional organ music and draws out a harmonization of the chorale "Was mein Gott will gescheh' allzeit"; the chorale, played quietly on one manual, has dignity enough to hold its own against the louder and much more assertive commentary that continues on the other manual.
The second movement of Op. 65, No. 1 is an Adagio in A flat major. The third movement is an Andante recitativo that makes an "attacca" into the rolling, arpeggio-rich (final Allegro assai vivace in F major.
© Blair Johnston, Rovi
Organ Sonata No.5 in D, Op.65, No.5Mendelssohn put the music of his Op. 65—a set of six organ sonatas that is usually thought to contain the finest of his many musical thoughts for the instrument—through many revisions over the months during which he worked on it (mid-1844 to early 1845). Half of the Sonata No. 1 was thrown out and replaced; frustrated with the finale of the Sonata No. 4, he threw it out and replaced it as well, and the list goes on. The Organ Sonata No. 5 in D major, Op. 65, No. 5, certainly didn't escape the wringer of revision. Again he grew dissatisfied with one of the piece's movements and threw it out, but this time he didn't think it needed replacing—and thus a four-movement work suddenly woke up and found itself truncated to three.
As it stands in its final form, the Organ Sonata No. 5 contains the following movements: Andante - Andante con moto - Allegro maestoso. The extra movement was not destroyed, and it is sometimes played as an independent work. It is, in fact, little more than a reworking of the music from the first movement, and it, too, carries the marking Andante; perhaps it was the super-abundance of andante movements in the sonata (75 percent is pretty heavy) that prompted Mendelssohn to eliminate one of them!
The opening Andante is a chorale, completely homophonic in texture, plainly but healthily laid out almost exclusively in half notes. The following movement, which proceeds from the first movement's D major down to B minor, is by contrast all motion and flexibility—especially the leggiero bass line. The third and, as it turned out, final movement puts the organ's long-revered capacities for splendorous, exuberant brilliance on show.
© Blair Johnston, Rovi
Organ Sonata No.6 in D-/D major, Op.65, No.6The last of Felix Mendelssohn's Op. 65 organ sonatas, the Organ Sonata in D minor/D major, Op. 65, No. 6, was finished in late January of 1845. Once again the composer delves into the archives of the Lutheran chorale in the first movement, and once again there is a fugal movement at the heart of the sonata. But unlike most of the other sonatas in the group, the Sonata No. 6 underwent almost no revision after it was completed (whereas for many of the other sonatas the composer's recorded dates of completion are deceptive). It was originally conceived in the same three-movement format, and with the same specific three movements, as found in the version printed in mid-1845. Perhaps Mendelssohn was somehow a little more confident of himself when composing this particular sonata; more than one organist, certainly, has felt closer to it than to the others—though in all fairness, each sonata has its champions.
The Sonata No. 6 opens with 25 measures of a traditionally scored chorale harmonization in D minor on Vater unser im Himmelreich. The movement soon turns into a quiet, breezy Andante sostenuto over the course of which hands and feet are, for once, given tasks of almost equal prominence—the music may not be fast, but still there is one episode (17 measures long, 30 measures into the Andante sostenuto) with some mighty challenging pedal work—Mendelssohn asks for a light staccato in the pedals, which is easier said than done, and he provides very little above to cover up any gaffes.
The second movement is a fugue in four voices, relatively short and admirably lean. The final Andante is likewise only a couple of pages long, but it doesn't sound particularly lean—after the saturation of D minor in the first two movements, the sudden move to D major in the finale's first bar seems almost cushy.
© Blair Johnston, Rovi
Organ Sonata No.4 in Bb, Op.65, No.4The Organ Sonata No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 65, No. 4, caused its composer, Felix Mendelssohn-Barthody, rather more trouble than most of the five other Op. 65 organ sonatas did. He finished the piece shortly after the New Year in 1845, but just couldn't seem to make the original finale work properly. So, in the end, he threw the finale out and replaced it with a brilliant and now-famous (among organists and organ enthusiasts, anyway) fugal movement. The sonata was, then, the last of the Op. 65 pieces to be completed, taking its final shape only in the spring of 1845.
The Sonata No. 4 is, like the Sonata No. 1 but unlike any of the others, in four movements. The first, Allegro con brio, begins with florid passagework for both hands (but not, however, the feet, which instead supply solid groundwork in the form of weighty and long-held pedal-points on first B flat and then F natural). This virtuosic material is then temporarily abandoned so that imitative dotted-rhythm figures can be pondered; but throughout the final third of the movement both ideas—rapid passagework and stolid dotted ideas—are joined together in peroration. The second movement is a lyric Andante religioso, the third an Allegretto in F major that rocks back and forth, quietly, in 6/8 time.
The original finale survives as a self-standing item called, simply, Allegro in B flat major. The finale eventually approved by Mendelssohn is marked Allegro maestoso e vivace. Its opening paragraph grows from dramatic rising scales in the pedals; but after 25 bars a new idea rises up from those same pedals—a fugue subject (accompanied by other voices, not offered solo in the more usual way) that quickly develops into an impressive full-blown contrapuntal exercise.
© Blair Johnston, Rovi
Organ Sonata No.2 in C-/C major, Op.65, No.2Take a glance at Mendelssohn's catalog of works and you might think that the Organ Sonata No. 2 in C minor/C major, Op. 65, No. 2, took him just three days to write: No. 1 bears the date December 18, 1844, and No. 2 is dated December 21, 1844. But in truth, neither of these works was yet in its finished form in that week before Christmas, and he had been working on both—and the other four Opus 65 organ sonatas as well—for many months, drawing up a stock of music that he would put together into a finished body of six remarkable organ sonatas during the early weeks of 1845. The Second Sonata, like the first and the sixth, is in neither the major mode nor the minor mode but, as its title above indicates, both; each of the three movements is allowed to select its mode, and thus to a large extent its own affect and effect, more or less independently of the others.
The Organ Sonata in C minor/C major opens with a weighty Grave in C minor that after 23 bars diffuses into an Adagio whose thick running sixteenth notes ebb and flow in mostly juicy parallel sixths—the effect is hardly one of syrupy excess, however, for this is as serious an essay as Mendelssohn ever penned. The second movement is a regal-sounding Allegro maestoso e vivace whose C major dotted figures are, by comparison with the previous movement, all brightness and light. A 108-bar Fuga follows the second movement without break; it takes up a subject that sounds curiously like a hybrid of Mozart and Brahms—which one supposes makes sense, given Mendelssohn's historical position and his own artistic leanings.
© Blair Johnston, Rovi