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Episode 72: Chopin and Mendelssohn

Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 8

Felix Mendelssohn“Let me remind you that even if you do possess friends and admirers worthier and closer to you, none is more sincere than I.”

Those words close a letter the Parisian Fryderyk Chopin sent to the Berliner Felix Mendelssohn in early October of 1845. Chopin generally had a low opinion of his fellow composers; his letters contain withering statements about Liszt, Berlioz, Robert Schumann, and dozens of lesser names.

But Chopin was sincere about Mendelssohn. At the age of 18, a starstruck Chopin traveled to Berlin. He heard Mendelssohn play – but was too shy to meet him. But four years later, Mendelssohn returned the favor, traveling to Paris to attend Chopin’s first public recital. He instantly recognized Chopin’s talent…to the extent that at a subsequent concert with half-a-dozen of the best know pianists in Paris, Mendelssohn “applauded furiously” for just one: the diffident Pole he called “Chopinetto.”

Chopin biographer Tad Szulc asserts, “both Chopin and Mendelssohn were more mature composers before the age of 20 than Mozart" may explain their connection. Two decades into their friendship, at Mendelssohn’s request, Chopin composed a piece for Felix’s wife. The work was not published and the manuscript has since vanished. However, a work survives that echoes the Felix-Fryderyk connection. It’s Chopin’s Piano Trio in G minor, composed in 1828, days after Chopin heard, but didn’t dare meet, Mendelssohn for the first time.

Young Felix’s influence on Young Fryderyk is audible in Chopin’s chamber work, but vanishes in later compositions. And that might also explain their friendship – they were colleagues, but not competitors. Mendelssohn was a conductor, and wrote everything from songs without words to grandiose symphonies. But Chopin’s singular approach and devotion to the piano fine-tuned a sound describable only as “Chopin.”

Or James Huneker concludes, “Play him as you play Mendelssohn and your Chopin has evaporated.” - Jennifer Foster & Benjamin K. Roe

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Radio Chopin Episode 72: Chopin and Mendelssohn

Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 8

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