Mendelssohn – Songs without words Op. 30 – Music | History
Songs Without Words (Lieder ohne Worte) is a series of short lyrical piano pieces by the Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn, written between 1829 and 1845. His sister Fanny Mendelssohn and other composers also wrote pieces in the same genre.
The eight volumes of Songs Without Words, each consisting of six “songs” (Lieder), were written at various points throughout Mendelssohn’s life, and were published separately. The piano became increasingly popular in Europe during the early nineteenth century, when it became a standard item in many middle-class households. The pieces are within the grasp of pianists of various abilities and this undoubtedly contributed to their popularity. This great popularity has caused many critics to under-rate their musical value.
The first volume was published by Novello in London (1832) as Original Melodies for the Pianoforte, but the later volumes used the title Songs Without Words.
The works were part of the Romantic tradition of writing short lyrical pieces for the piano, although the specific concept of “Songs 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. The title Song Without Words seems to have been Felix Mendelssohn’s own invention. In 1828, Fanny wrote in a letter “My birthday was celebrated very nicely … Felix has given me a ‘song without words’ for my album (he has lately written several beautiful ones).”
Mendelssohn himself resisted attempts to interpret the Songs too literally, and objected when his friend Marc-André Souchay sought to put words to them to make them literal songs:
What the music I love expresses to me, is not thought too indefinite to put into words, but on the contrary, too definite. (Mendelssohn’s own italics)
Mendelssohn also wrote other Songs Without Words not collected in volumes, and published only in recent years. Furthermore, original drafts exist for many of the ‘Songs’ many of which differ quite substantially from the eventually published versions. In 2008, the Italian pianist Roberto Prosseda recorded a collection of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words for Decca Records totalling 56 Lieder, some of them never recorded before.