The chamber works of Felix Mendelssohn provide a unique perspective on the development of his musical language. Mendelssohn chose four chamber works (three piano quartets and a violin sonata, composed 1822-25) as his first published works. Throughout his musical career he would continue to explore the chamber music genres that had been established and developed by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, including those of the string quartet and string quintet. Mendelssohn’s last complete major work was the String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, written two months before his death, and widely seen as a response to the untimely death of his sister Fanny in May of 1847, aged 41.
Much of the music on today’s program comes from the last five years of Mendelssohn’s life. During this time he was constantly traveling between Leipzig, Berlin, and London. Mendelssohn was instrumental in founding the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843 and was deeply involved in the administration of the school along with serving on its faculty. He was also the music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, a position he held from 1835 onwards. In Berlin Mendelssohn served as Kapellmeister to Friedrich Wilhelm IV. In great demand in London as a piano soloist, he also became a favorite of Queen Victoria, and accompanied her in performances of his lieder and other works during private gatherings at Buckingham Palace. Unquestionably, juggling these duties, along with raising his and his wife, Cecile’s, five children, meant he was severely overworked. It should be noted that opus numbers for Mendelssohn’s works are not a reliable tool for determining their chronology.. All works after Opus 72 were published posthumously, so opus numbers 73 and above indicate publication order only. We do know that he wrote the String Quintet in Bb Major, Op. 87 in summer of 1845 while on holiday in Bad Soden. He had recently tendered his resignation in Berlin; one can sense in this piece a temporary release from his hectic life. This is his second essay in the genre, along with the Op. 18 Quintet in A Major. Here, Mendelssohn followed Mozart’s lead in composing for a quintet consisting of two violins, two violas, and cello.
The quintet opens with a spritely movement featuring the symphonic texture Mendelssohn favored in his chamber works since the famous Octet, Op. 20, written some 20 years earlier. The second movement employs an unusual and somewhat ironic tempo marking of andante scherzando, perhaps tipping a hat to Beethoven, who also liked to combine seemingly contradictory tempo markings to capture specific moods or characters via conceptual dissonance. Mendelssohn was a master at scherzos, and this movement is no exception, featuring humorous writing and light textures, albeit at a walking tempo instead of the more commonly-used quick tempos. The third movement is deeply expressive in the tradition of the slow movements of late Beethoven and Schubert works; some commentators remark that this movement foreshadows the music of Brahms.
The final movement returns to the lively spirit of the first. Wrapping up a multi-movement work is a task that many composers struggle with: Mendelssohn was no exception. Beethoven, despite his own trials and tribulations with this task, set a high standard. There is much evidence from later composers expressing their difficulties with final movements. Dissatisfaction with the finale of the Op. 87 quintet kept Mendelssohn from approving this work for publication during his lifetime. An 1846 journal entry by Mendelssohn’s friend Ignaz Moscheles describes an evening he spent with the composer where “We also looked at the Viola Quintet in B-flat Major and Mendelssohn claimed that the last movement was not good.” As he matured, Mendelssohn became increasingly picky about works that would represent his compositional legacy: even great works such as his Italian Symphony were withheld from publication. However, most of these met great success once they were published after Mendelssohn’s death in 1847.
The Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 81 is a collection of movements written for quartet during various points in Mendelssohn’s life. Mendelssohn composed a Theme and Variations in E Major (Op. 81, No. 1) and a Scherzo” in A minor (Op. 81, No. 2) in 1847 shortly after completing the String Quartet in F minor (Op. 80). The E-Major Theme and Variations bears similarities to movements in Robert Schumann’s Op. 44 string quartets, which were dedicated to Mendelssohn, and speaks to the influence that these two friends had on each other’s music. The Scherzo is a wonderful example of Mendelssohn’s continuing mastery of this type of movement and the characters it evokes. The character of this movement can be traced back to the Scherzo of the Op. 20 Octet, inspired by the Walpurgisnacht scene from Goethe’s Faust, evoking breeze blowing through leaves illuminated by moonlight. These two movements were likely meant to be part of another complete string quartet; judging from the character of these movements, the quartet may have served as an expressive foil to the intensity of the f-minor string quartet. A posthumous demand for Mendelssohn’s works spurred the publisher Breitkopf and Härtel to create a complete quartet by combining these with other music for quartet that Mendelssohn had composed earlier. This practice had precedent: Mendelssohn himself combined his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826) with the incidental music to Shakespeare’s play (Op. 61, 1842) for use in an 1843 production of the play in Berlin.
The Capriccio in E minor (Op. 81, No. 3) was composed in 1843 while Mendelssohn was in Leipzig. The movement starts out with a barcarolle sung by the first violin. This section is punctuated by a recitative, possibly hearkening back to Mendelssohn’s use of this operatic device in his first two string quartets. He then launches into a fugue in the style of J.S. Bach, paying homage to the composer whose work had largely been forgotten in Europe until Mendelssohn’s famous staging of the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829.The set of pieces is rounded out by the Fugue in E-flat Major, written in 1827, shortly after Mendelssohn completed his String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13. This movement was probably written in the spirit of the dozen or so fugues that Mendelssohn composed for string quartet at the behest of his teacher Carl Zelter.
Breitkopf and Härtel, the posthumous publishers, may have decided to end the collection with contrasting fugues to mirror Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, which was originally intended to be the final movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130. The young Mendelssohn was obsessed with Beethoven’s late quartets and he most probably appreciated the works for the rest of his life. The publisher’s decision to close the Op. 81 collection with a piece in the spirit of Beethoven would be an appropriate homage to Mendelssohn’s relationship with the genre of the string quartet.
© Daniel Doña
Lieder historians and aficionados often overlook the songs of Mendelssohn, as he remained largely uninfluenced by the songs of Schubert and Schumann. Mendelssohn’s songs were often shared as gifts for friends, not necessarily a vehicle for deeper expression. With Schubert, Schumann, even Mozart and especially Wolf, one senses a composer living through the emotions he conveys, whereas with Mendelssohn, one senses the astute observer of feelings and events. Mendelssohn’s song output – over 100 – spans a period of over twenty-five years, beginning in the early 1820’s, but never served as a central creative endeavor.
Composed near the end of his tragically short life and published posthumously in 1852, the Sechs Gesänge, op 99, embodies the principles of simplicity, popularity, and folk idiom, with mostly modest accompaniments and tuneful melodies that often reveal an instrumental conception origin. Originally intended for voice and piano, today’s performance is arranged for string quartet and voice. Compositional highlights include No. 2, “Die Sterne schau’n in stiller Nacht”; and No. 6, “Es weiss und räth es doch Keiner”. Both are cast in multiple sections and explore the radiance of the minor to major key transformation. In these two songs, we find Mendelssohn at the summit as a lieder composer.
© Ryan Turner