Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Songs Without Words (Lieder ohne Worte), Version for Flute and Piano by Luca Russo


  • Artist(s): Marta Tacconi, Stefano Parrino
  • Composer(s): Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
  • EAN Code: 7.46160914923
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Chamber
  • Instrumentation: Flute, Piano
  • Period: Romantic
  • Publication year: 2022
SKU: C00659 Category:

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Music and social practices are deeply intertwined and influence each other profoundly. Throughout Europe, the nineteenth century saw the inexorable ascent of the bourgeoisie: in some countries, as in France, its affirmation had cost the lives of many aristocrats during and after the French Revolution, while elsewhere it merely implied that nobility had a new, powerful competitor. Yet, both where class conflict had been harshest, and where society was comparatively peaceful, the bourgeoisie sought to legitimize its condition by adopting and adapting the status symbols which had been the exclusive property of aristocracy in the earlier eras.
One such status symbol was music. Whereas in the nineteenth century the likes of the Esterházy family had maintained orchestras of their own, more humbly the nineteenth century bourgeois could afford a piano, on which, typically, the female members of the household practised daily and regularly performed for visitors, family, and friends. Many of these young ladies had abundant free time – one might say that virtually all of their time was what we would now call “leisure” – and they devoted several hours a day to piano practice. In spite of this, they only seldom achieved virtuosity, probably due to a lack of motivation. Music was a “decoration” of the young lady, rather than a possible profession or a vocation.
Still, it had an important place in the social, artistic, and relational habits of the nineteenth-century bourgeois class. Frequently, the pianist herself was also able to sing, and used to accompany herself in what were known as Lieder in Germany, or romanze in Italy, or chansons in France. More frequently, she accompanied someone else, particularly during the long evenings when TV had not yet been invented. The Lieder repertoire is now acknowledged to include some absolute masterpieces of the entire musical repertoire (e.g. the great cycles by Schubert, those by Schumann, or by Brahms etc.), along with a plethora of less important works. In the absolute masterpieces, there is a perhaps unrivalled and unsurpassed connection between lyrics and music. Schubert remains unequalled in his ability to give musical sound to the finest details of speech, of the words, of the unsaid. Yet, how many of the middle-class amateur performers of Schubert’s Lieder were equal to the task of rendering this music and this indissoluble union adequately? Arguably, very few. What mattered most, with Schubert as with many other composers of Lieder, was to have a nice melody, not too complex to sing, and a pleasurable accompaniment, not too difficult to play. At the same time, we should not be too harsh in our judgement: in the end, that society was one where numerous people nourished their lives and souls with beautiful art and music, and even though they might have been poor performers, they still were capable of appreciating a profoundly aesthetical and spiritual experience.
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy knew the bourgeoisie very well. For one thing, along with most of his Romantic colleagues, he came from such a household himself – though the Mendelssohns were much wealthier, much more cultivated and much more brilliant than your average bourgeois. Still, even though the comparison between the music played by Felix and his sister Fanny, and that usually found in the bourgeois salons is cruel with regard to the honest amateur, the patterns and practices were not entirely unalike. The social dimension of music was as present at the Mendelssohns as it was in the average bourgeois salon.
It is unknown whether the idea for “Songs without Words” came first to Felix or to Fanny. On the one hand, musical historiography can safely affirm that this genre was born with Felix, though it would not die with him (indeed, many great composers of the following decades would gladly learn from Mendelssohn’s teaching). On the other, it has been claimed that Fanny might have authored at least some of the pieces which were later ascribed to her brother. For this we have a famous source. When Fanny met with Charles Gounod in Rome in 1839, the French composer affirmed: “Mrs. Hensel [i.e. Fanny] was an extremely learned musician and played the piano very well. Despite her small, slight figure she was a woman of excellent intellect and full of energy that could be read in her deep, fiery eyes. Along with all this she was an extremely talented pianist. She had rare powers of composition, and many of the ‘Songs without Words’ published among the works and under the name of her bother were hers”. Gounod’s reliability is not complete, of course: he is merely citing what has been said to him. Yet, this statement is enticing and tantalising.
Femininity thus enters determinedly in the picture, with the possible authorship of some of “Felix’s” Songs being attributed to Fanny. Yet, even though the most enthused performers of the Songs without Words were doubtlessly the female pianists of many European countries, they were neither the primary, nor the only intended target of Felix’s works.
True, out of the six books of six Songs each published during Mendelssohn’s lifetime (plus two posthumous volumes), the really challenging pieces are not may. Or, better said: the average pianist can manage decent performances of most Songs without Words, though a satisfactory, artistic rendition of these small gems absolutely requires a professional concert musician, with the full armour of technical and artistic proficiency.
Mendelssohn was, from the one side, delighted by the success obtained by his collections. So great was it that, in 1842, his publisher (Simrock from Bonn) felt in duty bound to pay an extra to the composer, due to the extraordinary acclaim with which his pieces were greeted. Mendelssohn was very touched by this gesture, and wrote: “If ever a letter gave me a pleasant surprise it was the one I received from you yesterday: the magnanimous present you have made to me for my Songs without Words – I really don’t know how to set about expressing y due thanks to you”. From the other side, however, Mendelssohn disliked being too strictly identified with these small-scale works, and particularly with their unskilled performance by amateurs.
He had in fact a very high concept of these seemingly unpretentious pieces. These Songs without Words had to express the mystery of life in full, unhampered by the weight of words. The Lied, whose language had grown out of its profound relationship with the word, now claimed an independence of its own. As Mendelssohn himself put it: “People often complain that music is too uncertain in its meaning, that what they should be thinking as they hear it is unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me it is exactly the reverse, and not only in the context of an entire speech, but also with individual words. These, too, seem to me so uncertain, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music that fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. The thoughts expressed to me by the music I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite”.
Music could comprise and express a meaning transcending verbality itself. Again in Mendelssohn’s words, “If you ask me what I had in mind when I wrote it, I would say: just the song as it is. And if I happen to have certain words in mind for one or another of these songs, I would never want to tell them to anyone, because the same words never mean the same things to others. Only the song can say the same thing, can arouse the same feelings in one person as in another, a feeling that is not expressed, however, by the same words”.
Mendelssohn’s first set of six Songs was published in 1832, when the composer was in his early twenties. The collection was not yet called as we now familiarly conceive it, but bore the more neutral title of Original Melodies for the Pianoforte. Only later was Song without Words employed, not only by Mendelssohn. The six collections published during the composer’s lifetime represent a parallel to his life experience, including events in his family (the birth of Fanny’s child, Mendelssohn’s wedding to Cecile etc.). And though Mendelssohn could be slightly annoyed by the extreme enthusiasm of the female readership for his collections, he did dedicate five of his six volumes to ladies, including the great pianist and composer Clara Schumann.
The pattern found in most Songs without Words is clear, but not less impressive for that. A beautiful melodic line stands clearly out, evoking the human voice of a Lied, against the background of an accompaniment whose instrumental nature is particularly pronounced. The form is frequently ABA, and the size compact.
The appeal of the melodic line is difficult to resist. At Mendelssohn’s time, for almost a century the piano had sought to imitate the human voice. Under the hands of particularly gifted pianists, instruments built by the greatest craftsmen of the era came close to singing; yet, hammers are hammers, and the sustain of a properly trained voice will be always unreachable by the piano.
Thus Mendelssohn himself did at times conceive the possibility of pairing a melodic instrument with the piano, entrusting the “song’s” melody to the former. This is the case, for instance, of the Lied ohne Worte op. 109 for cello and piano, where the voice is replaced by one of the most “singing” instruments of the Western orchestra.
The flute, however, is not its inferior as concerns closeness to the human voice. Indeed, being a wind instrument, it is even closest to singing. This is what composer Luca Russo clearly realised, when he informally began transcribing some of Mendelssohn’s Songs for flute and piano. He collected some of his transcriptions in a private album including some of his favourite musical works in flute transcriptions, conceived for both delight and instruction. From this kernel, an entire repertoire grew up. With the exception of those (few) Songs whose writing is so characteristically pianistic that it becomes untranslatable on other instruments, most of Mendelssohn’s Songs lend themselves beautifully to this change of destination. Russo respected the finest details of Mendelssohn’s writing, while seeking the most idiomatic renditions for his instrument, the flute. The most evident changes regard key, where Russo was often forced to opt for a higher texture with respect to the original: the flute sounds better at a higher pitch, and therefore most Songs are transposed a fourth higher. The result is a unique achievement, an unprecedented feat where a substantial percentage of Mendelssohn’s corpus is given “voice”, quite literally, through the flute’s sound. Thus transfigured, his works acquire an even more direct emotional and affective power, and will certainly communicate it to their listeners.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022


Marta Tacconi: Born in Jesi, Italy, began to study piano at the age of six. In 2009, under the guidance of Bruno Bizzarri, obtained a First Level Degree in Pianoforte from the “G.Rossini” Conservatory of Pesaro with the most votes, and in 2016 a Second Level Degree as Accompanist Pianist and Repetiteur from the "Santa Cecilia" Conservatory in Rome, with distinction. From 2006 to 2009, perfected her piano studies, chamber music and vocal chamber music under the guidance of Lorenzo Di Bella, Guido Salvetti, Stelia Doz, and Pier Narciso Masi. From her earliest youth, played in many concerts, in important Italian Theatres and Auditoriums and qualified in various National Piano and Chamber Music Competitions in Italy. In 2010, selected by the "Sipario" Project of the “Pergolesi Spontini” Foundation in Jesi as House and Stage Manager, which gave her authorized professional status. In the same year, began to collaborate with the Pergolesi Spontini Festival and with the Traditional Opera Season of the “Pergolesi” Theater in Jesi. As of 2011, is, also, House and Stage Manager at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro. In April 2017, after research and analysis carried out with support of Guido Zaccagnini, writes La voix humaine – From the monologue of Jean Cocteau to the music of Francis Poulenc, published by Edizioni Pendragon, Bologna (Italy). In the same year, founds, in Jesi, Studio Musicale Crescendo, to make classical music better known through concerts, theatre productions and other initiatives, as well as to take advantage of many years of experience in musical education and as a teacher of pianoforte. Currently, Marta Tacconi is Accompanist Pianist at the "F. Morlacchi" Conservatory in Perugia.

Stefano obtained degrees from the most important European music schools under teachers such as Peter-Lukas Graf, Maxence Larrieu, Patrick Gallois and William Bennett. He pursues a concert career both as a soloist and chamber musician. He has performed in Europe, Asia, North and South America and has played as a soloist with several orchestras (St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Toscanini Symphony Orchestra, Sicilian Symphony Orchestra, Sanremo Symphony Orchestra, etc.). He combines his concert activities with teaching. He has given master classes all over Europe, Asia, South and North America, both in the flute and in circular breathing, a technique for which Stefano is an internationally recognised researcher and populariser. He teaches flute at the Conservatorio “Antonio Vivaldi” in Alessandria. Stefano records for Brilliant Classics and Stradivarius, is a member of the Caballeros del traverso, Azumi-Altus Flutes and Bulhgheroni wooden flutes Artist.


(b Hamburg, 3 Feb 1809; d Leipzig, 4 Nov 1847). German composer. One of the most gifted and versatile prodigies, Mendelssohn stood at the forefront of German music during the 1830s and 40s, as conductor, pianist, organist and, above all, composer. His musical style, fully developed before he was 20, drew upon a variety of influences, including the complex chromatic counterpoint of Bach, the formal clarity and gracefulness of Mozart and the dramatic power of Beethoven and Weber.

Mendelssohn’s emergence into the first rank of 19th-century German composers coincided with efforts by music historiographers to develop the concept of a Classic–Romantic dialectic in 18th and 19th-century music. To a large degree, his music reflects a fundamental tension between Classicism and Romanticism in the generation of German composers after Beethoven.