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Mendelssohn’s Six Sonatas For Organ, Op. 65

In a chronological journey through organ music, Mendelssohn’s Six Sonatas, OP. 65 constitute the first prominent milepost that one encounters after leaving the eighteenth century and entering the nineteenth. Commissioned by the English publisher Coventry & Hollier, they appeared both in London and in Leipzig (where they were published by Breitkopf und Härtel) towards the end of 1845. They are therefore among the last of Mendelssohn’s works and fall between such characteristic expressions of the composer’s maturity as the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 and the oratorio Elijah, OP. 70. The word ‘sonata’ is used here not in the classical sense (for example, none of the first movements is in sonata form) but with the same freedom with which Beethoven increasingly came to use it in relation to the piano sonatas, and each of the Six Sonatas is in fact a collection of movements conceived originally as organ voluntaries. As one would expect in the case of a composer proficient as an organist, a major influence was J.S. Bach and the German tradition of organ works based on the melodies of the Lutheran church: three of the sonatas (number 1, 3 and 6) use Lutheran melodies, another (number 5) begins with what appears to be a ‘Lutheran’ melody of Mendelssohn’s own composition, and elsewhere are fugues and variations. This is serious, weighty music and, wether or not consciously intended as such, an extension of the tradition of organ-writing begun by Bach’s predecessors and further extended by Brahms, Reger, and Karg-Elert. The Six Sonatas are, however, good and typical Mendelssohn - typical not only because of the song-like movements but also and more particularly because of the drive and brilliance of some of the finales ( and some of the first movements). Such things are examples of Mendelssohn at or very near his marvellous best.

Sonata in F minor, Op.65, No.1

Allegro moderato e serioso - Adagio - Andante Recitativo - Allegro assai vivace

The first movement is in the ‘Appassionata’ key of F minor, and the Neapolitan (G flat major) chords in bars 3, 7 and 8 seem like further pointers in the direction of Beethoven. A fugue is dovetailed into the imposing introductory paragraph, its subject beginning with a four-crotchet ‘head’ and continuing with a rising ‘tail’ of quavers. There is drama at the dominant cadence at bars 39-40, where a chorale melody (‘Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit’) is quietly introduced. Thereafter the chorale, played mezzopiano, alternates with snatches of the fugue subject played fortissimo. Whatever the chorale and fugue respectively represent, the apparent conflict between them seems to be resolved in the chorale’s favour, for at the end of the movement a quiet statement of part of it is answered not by the fugue subject but by a Full Organ statement of the chorale’s finale bars. The sweetly melodious second movement is in the key of the relative major (A flat) and seems like a distant cousin of the slow movement of the recently composed Violin Concerto. The third movement, like the first, exploits to dramatic effect, but even more so, the contrast between Full Organ and the instrument’s quiet stops, and it ends on a dominant seventh which ushers in the great torrent of notes that is the virtuosic finale. Here, in the key of F major, the conflicts of the first movement are further resolved, and Mendelssohn concludes a quintessentially Romantic journey from Darkness to light.

Sonata in C minor, Op.65, No. 2

Grave - Adagio - Allegro maestoso e vivace - Allegro moderato

The sombre first movement could easily be the introduction to a choral work based on some Passiontide text; it runs without a break into the gravely beautiful second movement, whose sinuous lines maintain the profoundly serious mood. The atmosphere created by these C minor movements is briskly shattered by the third and fourth, both of which are in the tonic major. The triple-time third is majestic and somewhat march-like in character; the fourth, a two-in-the-bar fugue, is based on a subject vocal in character: the quavers introduced at bar 39 intensify the excitement, and Mendelssohn maintains them, almost incessantly, right up to the chorale-like final bars.

Sonata in A major, Op.65, No.3

Con moto maestoso - Andante tranquillo

The first movement is undoubtedly the finest of the set. Its opening section exhibits that strain of heart-winning grandeur that seems unique to Mendelssohn, and it introduces what is in effect a chorale prelude on the Lutheran melody ‘Aus tiefer Not’, which appears in the pedals: its first two notes outline the fall of a fifth with which the introduction begins, and its Phrygian minor second (E-F) is a link with the subject of the fugue unfolding purposefully above it. At bar 58 a new, all-semiquaver subject is introduced: the animation and dynamic level remorselessly increase, and the major-key introduction is re-stated with overwhelming splendour. The second movement is a gentle, suave voluntary, its euphony and harmonic colour quintessentially Mendelssohnian.

Sonata in B flat major, Op.65, No.4

Allegro con brio - Andante religioso - Allegretto - Allegro maestoso e vivace

The first movement’s arpeggios generate a lively contrapuntal texture maintained until the tonic cadence in bars 21-2. At this point, with a nod perhaps in the direction of Bach’s ‘French overture’ movements, dotted-note figures take over, but at bar 48 the arpeggios are re-introduced and combine with the dotted-note figures to drive the movement to its spirited close. The second movement is a short, good-natured voluntary in the home key. The third, in F major, is more substantial and comprises for the most part a trio in which a long-breathed melody is heard against an accompaniment of semiquavers above pedal crotchets. The splendid finale begins with a majestic paragraph whose concluding bars are a springboard for a fugue whose subject is announced on the pedals: it begins with a semiquaver flourish which spans the pedal-board’s B flats and eventually dominates the whole movement. A repeat of the ‘majestic’ music heard at the outset brings the sonata to a triumphant conclusion.

Sonata in D major, Op.65, No.5

Andante - Andante con moto - Allegro maestoso

There is a short, chorale-like first movement. The restless second movement is in the key of the relative minor (B minor) and makes a particular feature of pedal quavers played staccato. The finale, an exciting, superbly crafted rondo, is based on the sunny, quasi-pentatonic idea heard in single notes at the outset, and a sense of unity is created by the final bars, in which Mendelssohn recalls on Full Organ the textures of the first movement.

Sonata in D minor, Op.65, No.6

Choral; Andante sostenuto - Allegro molto - Fuga (Sostenuto e legato) - Finale (Andante)

The Sixth Sonata begins like the Fifth, but here the chorale melody is not Medelssohn’s but the one written by Luther for Vater unser im Himmelreich, his own translation of the Lord’s Prayer. It is the basis of nearly the whole work, to which it imparts a sense of unity not found elsewhere in the sonatas. The first movement is followed without a break by three variations, Andante sostenuto, as follows.

  1. This is the trio with the melody in the soprano accompanied by left-hand semiquavers and an eight-foot pedal stop.
  2. The time-signature changes from 4/4 to 12/8 and pedal quavers, staccato, underpin the simply harmonized melody.
  3. The melody is in the left hand, accompanied by material consisting for the most part of consecutive thirds and sixths over detached pedal notes.

The Allegro molto, a fiery, agitated movement in which the melody is given first to the pedals, concludes with a mighty harmonization of the melody’s first and last lines. A sober, triple-time fugue, sostenuto e legato, follows without a break, its subject based on the chorale melody; and the exquisite tonic major finale, a Lied ohne Worte, anticipates the aria ‘O rest in the Lord’ from Elijah. It might seem to have no connection with the minor-key preceding movements, but its first few notes are an echo of the fugue’s finals bars.

© Relf Clark, 2011


Mendelssohn: The Six Sonatas

PRCD 1071


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Sonata in F minor, Opus 65 No 1

Allegro moderato e seriosio


Andante Recitativo

Allegro assai vivace

Sonata in C minor, Opus 65 No 2



Allegro maestoso e vivace

Fuga, Allegro moderato

Sonata in A, Opus 65 No 3

Con moto maestoso

Andante tranquillo

Sonata in B flat, Opus 65 No 4

Allegro con brio

Andante religioso


Allegro maestoso e vivace

Sonata in D, Opus 65 No 5


Andante con moto

Allegro maestoso

Sonata in D minor, Opus 65 No 6

Choral: Andante sostenuto

Allegro molto

Fuga, Sostenuto e legato

Finale, Andante