Not many viola players (let alone other people!) know Mendelssohn Viola Sonata in C minor for viola and piano. It is a very satisfying work for both players and for the listeners as well.
Felix Mendelssohn was again another composer who played the viola, like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Paganini, Hindemith, Schubert and many more. He was a child prodigy pianist and composer, and was also a conductor.
Born in Germany in 1809, Mendelssohn too didn't live very long, only
38 years but by the age of 20 he had reached his musical maturity and by
the age of 15 he had already composed 13 string symphonies and five
concertos, together with other works. Many of his juvenile compositions
were published only in the 20th century and therefore are not included
in the usual numeration of his works. By the age of 10 he had already learned to play piano, violin and organ and was studying composition.
Mendelssohn came from a wealthy family, as his father was a banker, so he could afford his own orchestra
that would perform his compositions during concerts given in his family
home for their wealthy guests. Felix himself would play at the piano
together with his four-year-elder sister Fanny. His sister too was
very musically gifted but since she was a woman of the high society, her family prevented her
from making music as a profession. Several of her compositions were
published under Felix's name.
In 1821, when he was 12, he met the poet Goethe who was astonished at his precocity and skills at playing the piano. At the same time, Felix attended the première of Weber's ‘romantic opera’ Der Freischütz (that has an important viola solo) which impressed him greatly.
In the early 1829, he organized and conducted a revival performance to celebrate the centenary of Matthew's Passion by Bach, who was then not as well known as he is today to us.
In this year, at 20, he visited Italy and the influence of this stay can be seen in his 4th symphony, Italian, especially in the 4th movement, Saltarello. In Italy Mendelssohn met Berlioz who would later compose Harold in Italy, also influenced by the Italian environment and lanscape.
Besides being mainly a pianist and a composer, Mendelssohn played the viola well enough to play chamber music with noted musicians. He composed this sonata when he was not yet 15. Therefore it is very likely that he composed it to play it himself during one of his family's home concerts.
Mendelssohn viola sonata, 1st and 2nd movement
Mendelssohn also composed interesting parts for violists in his orchestral works, like for examples The Hebrides ouverture (also known as Fingal's Cave), which is of my favourite ones.
The opening wavy theme is played by violas with cellos and bassoon and proposed again many times throughout the ouverture by the violas only or with other instruments. In all the work the violas have an important roles, carrying the theme most of time.
He composed this work after a journey to the Hebrides islands, West of Scotland. The sea was rough and he got very sick but apparently was enough favourably impressed to be musically inspired. Listen to it, imagine a stormy sea and you'll hear it in the music.
I once tried to go and visit Fingal's Cave but I had not organized the trip properly (it was before the Internet era), I just decided to go one day. I was staying in Glasgow, William Primrose's birthplace, at a viola congress. One morning I left by train but it took too long only to arrive at Oban, the port from which the boats depart to go to the tiny island of Iona, see where it is on the map. Arrived there in the afternoon, the boats would take more hours to reach the island so I could not go. Anyway it was a nice trip on the Scottish coast. So if you fancy going, plan to spend two or three days for that.
Other very famous works of his are his violin concerto, the Italian symphony and scene music for A Midsummer Night's dream, which includes his ultra famous Wedding March.
"As the greatest expert and judge of harmony,
he liked best to play the viola,
with appropriate loudness and softness"
C.P.E. Bach about his father J.S. Bach