First page of [op. 38, no. 2] from Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte (March 29, 1836). Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.
Mendelssohn's most significant contribution to the solo piano literature rests in the approximately forty works -- about one quarter of the total number of works that he composed for that instrument -- that are designated as the Lieder ohne Worte, or "Songs without words." The composer is credited with codifying a genre in which the lyricism and intimate scale of art song -- although without text, as implied by their titles -- is reflected in a strictly instrumental medium.
While generations of musicians have sought in vain for a programmatic context for these works -- i.e., for the words of these wordless compositions, an understandable confusion fostered by the series title itself -- Mendelssohn insisted that the communicative power of music needed no text to convey its meaning, the inherent lyricism of these works being sufficient to allow them to stand on their own merits.
Composed between the late 1820s through the 1840s, Mendelssohn likely intended these works for amateur performers. The piano was, by that time, rapidly becoming the preferred instrument among middle class European homes, and the finely-crafted melodies and small scale of the Lieder ohne Worte assured their accessibility to new audiences. As a result, these works became highly popular in their day, and continue to represent Mendelssohn's most renowned piano works.
In 1832, Mendelssohn conceived the idea of publishing several of these short works in a single volume. Later that same year, this volume did in fact appear, published as the composer's op. 19b, and, curiously, in an edition published in London with the title Original Melodies for the Pianoforte. It was not until the following year that a German edition appeared in print, published in Bonn, and bearing the title Lieder ohne Worte. Five additional volumes of Lieder ohne Worte were published before their composer's death in 1847; two additional volumes were posthumously compiled and published.
While Mendelssohn ascribed titles to only a handful of the Lieder ohne Worte, many more of these found their way into print after his death with titles appended by their publishers, evidently hoping to increase sales by providing a hint of these works' absent texts. Ironically, the saccharine nature of many of these unsanctioned titles (i.e., "Consolation," "Sweet Remembrance," etc.) likely damaged the works' very popularity from which these publishers were evidently hoping to profit. The long-term popularity of these works remained unscathed, however, a testament to their enduring quality.
The Library of Congress holds the holograph manuscript scores of two of the Lieder ohne Worte -- op. 85, no. 3 (1835), and op. 38, no. 2 (1837) -- part of the so-called "Grabau Album," which also includes a watercolor by Mendelssohn of the Leipzig Gewandhaus (concert hall), as well as holograph correspondence of Mendelssohn and of Robert and Clara Schumann. The album itself was compiled by soprano Henriette Grabau, with whom Mendelssohn performed on a number of occasions. The "Grabau Album" is held within the Library of Congress's Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation Collection under the call number "ML30.8b .M46 op. 85, no. 3 1836 Case."