J. Louis von der Mehden, Jr., San Francisco, c.1904
J. Louis von der Mehden, Jr. (1873-1954) was born in San Francisco, studied music at Leipzig and Yale, and spent most of his active musical life as a cellist and conductor in New York City from 1906 to the onset of World War II, when he and his wife took up permanent residence in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. H is additional talents in the fields of transcription, orchestration and composition, already recognized in New York, occupied most of his time during the latter part of his life in Connecticut.
After [v]on der Mehden’s death in 1954, his compositions were given to The University of Connecticut by his widow, Susan Evelyn Bates von der Mehden, who subsequently bequeathed her es- tate to this University for the establishment of a recital hall in his memory and in order that the unpublished compositions of Louis von der Mehden might be printed under the auspices of the Uni- versity.
Excerpt from James R. Johnson’s Forword to The Collected Works of J. Louis von der Mehden (1873—19541, Volume 1, Chamber Music. There are five ad- ditional volumes. Most of these works date from the early 1920s and do not constitute a representative sample of von der Mehden’s large compositional output, most of which has now vanished. See “Lost Works” (pp. 57-61) in John Paul Parakilas’ M.A. Thesis, Life and Works of J. Louis von der Mehden,
Jr. (UConn, 1974). Susan’s bequest was $500,000, about $5.7 million in 2023 dollars; von der Mehden Recital Hall opened in 1965.
Fuga J. Louis von der Mehden, Jr. (I 873— 1954) Material in this note is drawn largely from John Parakilas M.A. thesis,
cited above on p.2.
J. (for ‘Jacob’) Louis von der Mehden, Jr. was born in San Francisco, but information about his life before 1906 is sparse. H is father was a German im- migrant, which may account for Louis, Jr.’s being schooled in music—theory,
composition, cello, and piano at the Royal Conservatory in Leipzig (1892—
94) rather than somewhere closer to home. It may have been the only higher education he had. I n 1915, he would enroll in a correspondence course offered by the University of Chicago toward a Bachelor of Laws degree (eventually achieved in 1927), the first part of which aimed at high school equivalency.
In 1899, he married Susan E. Bates in Palo Alto. They would have no children, but entries in the joint diaries they kept from at least 1908 (which took the form of letters to one another) testify to a happy marriage. Internet search affords two glimpses of Louis and Susan at this time.
“Society’s Summer Outing” in The San Francisco Call, 30 June 1901 notes their arrival at Camp Yosemite in the previous week. Located near Wa- wona and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, this Camp served as head- quarters for the U.S. Army unit that administered Yosemite before creation of the National Park Service (1916). Perhaps this visit inspired Louis’ Two
.Symphonic Concert Etudes for Piano: “By the Brooklet” and “In the Forest (Among the Giant Sequoias)”, one of the “Lost Works” listed in Parakilas thesis.
Another of them has since turned up at imslp.org: sheet music (1904)
of the piano version of Eldory: Ballet Intermezzo, from which the photo of Louis with his cello on p.2 is taken. Here we see an entrepreneur in the mu- sic business, identified on its cover both as Writer and Music Publisher (at 26 O’ Farrell, near Union Square). The back cover displays the first page of four other “Sure winners” for piano and voice, “Words and Music” by Louis, plus a come-on (“Just out and all the rage”) for “Rattletrap,” a march in 6/8.
This phase of their lives came to an abrupt end at 5:12 AM on 18 April 1906 with the magnitude 7.9 earthquake and ensuing fire that destroyed much of San Francisco, including the von der Mehdens’ home. They joined thousands of other people leaving the city, moved to New York, and started over.
Louis worked in NYC until 1918 as cellist, conductor, composer. arranger, and orchestrater, mostly for theatres and the nascent recording industry. His operetta The Debuttante, or the Belle of Vassar
(1908— 10) failed to interest a producer; orchestrating piano scores for others proved to be a more reliable source of income. He had better luck selling other compositions, which led to commissions for arrangements from music publishers Carl Fischer and Ricordi.
In summer 1911, Louis and Susan vacationed in Connecticut, bought land in Old Saybrook, and arranged to have a summer house built there. Until 1926, when Susan retired from her position in sales for The Embossing Company, a manufacturer of toys and games, they maintained an apartment in NYC. But after 1918, Louis quit playing cello gigs and conducting in the city and worked at the Old Saybrook house on commissions and his own compositions, revising earlier works and composing new ones in established forms.
The string quartet (ambitiously titled “No. 1”) from which the fugal move- ment that opens this concert is taken dates from this time. Begun in 1915, taken up again in 1919, reworked and completed in 1921, it is subtitled “Motive” and represents Louis’ attempt to unify the separate movements of a string quartet around a single musical motif.
Such compositions, which included Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues for
Piano (1920), departed radically from the kind of music he’d been called upon to write in New York, and it is not clear why he wrote them. Curiosity about old forms and what he could do with them? A realization that serving popular taste, as he had in the music business, was unlikely to leave a lasting mark in the world? We don’t know—the diaries he and Susan kept are strangely silent about his motives generally. (He seems never to have done anything with the law degree in which he’d invested so much time and effort.)
Whatever his objectives, he may have concluded that some guidance would be helpful. In August 1922, he applied to Yale University for admission to its Music School and was welcomed with an individualized program of study consisting of auditing music history lectures and submitting compositions to Stanley Smith, Dean of the School, for criticism. The arrangement stimulated a flurry of composition in 1923: Piano Quartet No. 1 (“Cycle”), Quintet Jor Piano and String Quartet, Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Symphony No. 3
(” Yale“), two symphonic poems: Paul Revere’s Ride and Halcyone.
Unfortunately, Louis experience at Yale did not end on a high note. To honor him, Dean Smith announced that the commencement concert would fea- ture Halcyone, played by the student orchestra under the composer’s direction. Louis was not enthusiastic: “I did my best to get out of it, but he is the boss and I had to say yes.” The performance went badly: the piece is demanding, and the student orchestra was far less capable than the ensembles of professional musicians he’d conducted in New York. It must have been a humiliating expe- rience, which perhaps explains why Susan’s bequest (p. 2) was not to Yale.
Save for his piano concerto (1924-25) and a violin sonata (1933, now lost), Louis did not compose additional works of the sort he had written for Yale. There was no String Quartet No. 2, for example. His last composition, dedi- cated to Susan, was Our Golden Wedding March for voice and piano (1949).
String Quartet No. 2 in D Aleksandr Borodin (1833-87) Unlike Louis von der Mehden, Aleksandr Borodin didn’t make his living from music. He enjoyed a distinguished career as an organic chemist and pro- fessor at the St. Petersburg Academy of Medicine. A lover of music from childhood, he is now known outside the field of organic chemistry, to which he made important contributions—primarily for pieces he composed in his spare time. There was not much of this, given his domestic responsibilities, academic duties, scientific research, and other projects—particularly his ef- forts to open the field of medicine in Imperial Russia to women. Consequently, he completed only a small number of compositions, of which, however, many are memorably melodic. They include his tone poem On The Steppes of Central Asia (1880), this string quartet, and his Symphony No. 2 in b (a seven-year project, finished in 1887 shortly before his death).
Bonn in St. Petersburg, Borodin was the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, who as usual in such cases had the boy registered as the child of one of his serfs—hence his patronymic, ‘ Borodin’, a gift to those who write program notes and would otherwise have to identify him as ‘Aleksandr Gedevanishvili’. This made the boy legally a serf of his biological father and barred him from school. In Aleksandr’s case, these odd conventions had little effect. The prince set his mother up in a house with the wherewithal—including private tutors— to bring the boy up, and in due course formally emancipated him.
As a child, Borodin was beguiled by both music and science. Without much formal instruction, he learned to play flute and piano, and later, violin and cello. He turned his bedroom into a chemistry lab. In 1850, he began studies at St. Petersburg Medical-Surgical Academy, concentrating on organic chemistry. His advisor there looked askance at time his brilliant student took from studying chemistry to hear and play music, which he likened to chasing two hares at once. The composers with whom Borodin was later associated would take a similar view of time he devoted to scientific research.
After receiving his degree in 1858, he went to Heidelberg for additional study and research in chemistry. There he met pianist Ekatrina Protopova and heard chamber music by Mendelssohn, perhaps the very work that concludes this program. He would return to Russia in 1 862 to assume a professorship in organic chemistry and marry Ekatrina. He is said to have written this quar- tet (1881) for her to commemorate their meeting in Heidelberg twenty years before. You can hear an echo of Mendelssohn in its Scherzo.
Once back in Russia, Borodin renewed an acquaintance with Modest Mus- sorgsky, whom he had met during his medical residency. Mussorgsky intro- duced him to Mily Balakirev, a pianist and composer interested in getting Rus- sian composers to stop looking to Western Europe for musical inspiration and instead turn to Russian folk traditions. Borodin joined in this enterprise, along with composers Cesar Cui and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, to make up what critic Vladimir Stasov in 1867 dubbed ‘The Mighty Handful’. Borodin re- ceived valuable instruction in court position from Balakirev, whose criticism however often took the form of transforming a composition from Borodin into something he himself would have written. So it took some time for Borodin to apply what he learned from Balakirev in the service of his own voice.
In 1869, Borodin allowed himself to be talked into composing an opera based on a l2th century saga, “The Lay of Igor’s Host,” though he had mis- givings about being able to pull it off that turned out to be well-founded. He worked on the opera off and on until his death but never completed it. Only through the heroic efforts of Rimsky-Korsakov and Aleksandr G lazunov was a more-or-less presentable version of Prince 1gor assembled from Borodin’s papers for an 1890 premiere in St. Petersburg.
String Quartet in D, op. 44, no. 1 Felix Mendelssohn (1809—47) Bonn into a wealthy Berlin banking family, Felix Mendelssohn didn’t re- ally need to work for a living, but he nevertheless enjoyed a very successful
(albeit sadly briefs career as a pianist, composer, and conductor.
Mendelssohn composed six mature string quartets, the first two of them (which pay homage to Beethoven) before his 21st birthday. His last string quartet—No. 6 in f, op. 80—written in anguish over the death of his elder sister Fanny in May 1847, was completed less than two months before his own death six months later. In between are the three quartets of op. 44 (1837-38).
Unfortunately, numbering of Mendelssohn’s works in this genre got off to a
bad start—the quartet in E-flat, op. 20 (1829) was titled No. 1 , the earlier quartet in a, op. 18 (1827) became No. 2—and didn’t improve with op. 44. Only his last quartet got the number corresponding to its place in order of composition.
In March 1837, Mendelssohn married Cécile Jeanrenaud and, being a bit of a workaholic, started composing his 3rd string quartet (No. 4 in e, op. 44, no. 2) during their honeymoon in the Black Forest. He completed the next one, his 4th (No. 5 in E-flat, op. 44, no. 3), on the day before his son Carl was born in February 1838. The string quartet on this program (No. 3 in D, op. 44, no. 1) is his 5th, completed in July 1838. Shortly after, Mendelssohn wrote to violinist Ferdinand David, a good friend and concertmaster of his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, whose quartet had premiered the two earlier works from this period:
I’ve finished my third quartet in D major and take great pleasure in it; I only hope that you will like it as much as I do. But I’m almost certain that you will, for it seems to me that it is more passionate than the others and more gratifying for the players.
(Tr. by Ernst Herttrich, Preface to the Henle Urtext edition. I’ve altered his literal translation of dankharer as “more grateful” to make better sense of the second sentence.) David’s ensemble premiered this one as well. Here the Scherzo movement so typical of Mendelssohn is replaced by its classical pre- decessor, the Menuetto, to avoid too much of a good thing, given the work’s Scherzo-like finale. Notes by S.K. Lehmann