Origins of “Young Geniuses” Mendelssohn v. Chopin before age 20


This matchup has been playing in my mind for decades. I’ve always been intrigued by Mendelssohn’s early maturity - one of my first recordings included the 3 Sonatas by Mendelssohn, written at ages 12, 16 and 17!

As with the other two Smackdown matchups, this one also cleaves the musical world into two closely even halves. While Heart and Soul: Debussy vs. Prokofiev provides a choice between inner and outer worlds, and Time Travelers: Bach vs. Glass presents a contrast between slowing down time or speeding it up, Young Geniuses: Mendelssohn vs. Chopin before age 20 makes us choose in yet another way.

While Mendelssohn and Chopin were born barely a year apart, only a few hundred miles from each other, their backgrounds were very different. Mendelssohn’s well-established intellectual family provided him with unmatched educational and social outlets. His grandfather was a famous philosopher, and when the young prodigy Felix gained his own fame, his father complained that he was either known as his son’s father or his father’s son. Mendelssohn rapidly understood, embraced and developed the rich culture he was immersed in.

Chopin was raised in a more working-class environment, in a family with high educational and cultural aspirations but who were obliged to lead a simple lifestyle. Culturally, he quickly exhausted his hometown resources and his genius was left to create its own language and technique.

By the time these two composers reached age 20, they had already changed the world of music, and would continue to do so through their equally short lives. But their influence and examples were cut from very different cloth, and confronting their early creations makes us choose between: perfectly embraced and expounded tradition, or nascent innovation and intuition waiting to fully blossom.

The program for the Young Geniuses was carefully crafted to highlight the contrasts and the similarities of the composers’ works, and provide examples of the greatest achievement of both composers.

Round 1 - Earliest pieces

Chopin – Polonaise in G Minor B. 1, 7 years old (1817) - 3’

Chopin – Polonaise in Ab Major B. 5 11 years old (1821) - 3'

Mendelssohn – Sonata in G Minor, mvt i, Opus 105, 12 years old (1821) - 6’

Astonishingly, the earliest works of both composers foretells their career’s main path. For Chopin, his choice of the Polonaise as an introductory calling card to the world underlines his great contribution to his Polish culture in glorifying two typical Polish genres - the Polonaise and later the Mazurka. Nationalist characteristics in Classical music was not a popular trend until the 1800s, and Chopin was on the forefront of that trend.

Mendelssohn’s first piano work is a Sonata, and that points clearly to his admiration for and his mastery of the long form - the Sonata, the Symphony, the Oratorio. The creator of the miniature Songs Without Words could create beautiful moments, but his true gift lay in creating through sound some of the most solidly constructed formal structures.

Round 2 – Major contributions

Chopin   Nocturne Opus posthume 72 #1 E Min – 4'

    Mazurka Op posthume 68 #1, 2, 3 – 6'

    Etudes Opus 10 #9, 10, 11, 8 – 3’, 3’, 2’, 2’ = 10’

Mendelssohn Sonata Op 6 – 20'

For Chopin, in addition to his championing nationalist idioms in the wider world, he also created a completely new approach to playing his instrument of choice, the piano. The piano industry was the ground for incredible innovation in Chopin’s time and Chopin’s Etudes were pulling both pianists, audiences and piano manufacturers forward as they tried to keep up with Chopin’s vision of what the piano could be. All piano composers since Chopin have used his techniques, and no composer has written a more comprehensive set of studies for the instrument.

By the time Mendelssohn was 14, he had already written monumental masterpieces. While the Opus 6 Sonata was not published in his lifetime, we know it was written when he was 17 years old, already many years into his mature style. As an homage to Beethoven’s late Sonatas, Mendelssohn’s E Major Sonata takes specific ideas from Beethoven’s Opus 101: movements that flow into each other, long stretches of music with no bar lines, and a flashback of the first movement at the end of the last movement. All rendered perfectly in Mendelssohn’s own signature style. At age 17. What were you doing at age 17?

Round 3 – Closing round: The Rondeaux

Mendelssohn Rondo Capriccioso – 6'

Chopin Rondeau Opus 73 – 8'

The final round is a more direct head-to-head contest, with two examples of the same genre - the Rondo. This form is a simple one, providing an easy platform for both composers to show off their virtuosity and musical style. A Rondo starts with a theme, moves into a second theme that explores a different key, a different mood. Then we return to the original theme with a sense of coming home. After a while, we move into another theme with new explorations. Eventually we return home to the original theme. This may happen another time or two. Each time we return home, we are greeted with warmth and the pleasure of the familiar. And each time we leave home to explore, we thrill to the idea of discovery.

I hope the Rondo provides a model for how you listen to tonight’s program. Your choice will be between: the pleasure of the familiar, the traditional, the known done very well, vs. the thrill of discovery, the new, the unknown explored with all of wits about us.