Friday, January 23, 2015

Felix Mendelssohn: Lieder ohne Worte

No. 182 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


What are “Songs Without Words”? The title says it all, or does it… In Felix Mendelssohn’s own words:

What the music I love expresses to me, is not thought too indefinite to put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.
(Felix Mendelssohn's own italics)
We all have spent too much time in dental offices or in elevators, listening to piped-in music, with its fair share of “instrumental renditions” of well-known songs. Franz Liszt made quite a few “piano transcriptions” of songs, most notably by Franz Schubert, which do justice to the songs without the words. Mendelssohn’s vision of the Lieder ohne Worte clearly isn’t one of music written in anticipation of somebody adding words to them – they are, as they stand – complete as they are, as the music conveys the entire moment, atmosphere,  or emotion of the moment.

The eight volumes of Songs Without Words, each consisting of six "songs", were written between 1829 and 1845 so at various points throughout Mendelssohn's life. The works were part of the Romantic tradition of writing short lyrical pieces for the piano, although the specific concept of "Song Without Words" was new. Mendelssohn's sister Fanny wrote a number of similar pieces (though not so entitled) and, according to some music historians, she may have helped inspire the concept.

In a post from last Fall on operatic transcriptions for the piano, we discussed that before radio and recordings were available, the only way to enjoy music was, well, to play it. The piano became increasingly popular in Europe during the early nineteenth century, when it became a standard item in many middle-class households. Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words are within the grasp of pianists of various abilities and this undoubtedly contributed to their popularity.

Today’s montage does not provide all 48 pieces, but cuts a swath through the eight volumes, and features a number of pianists. In addition to Felix’s pieces, I added one of Fanny’s lieder for piano.

To complete the post, here is a “complete” set of all the songs from YouTube, performed by pianist Daniel Barenboim:

I think you will love this music too.

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