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Program Notes

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Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat major for Strings, Opus 20

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–47), perhaps the most extraordinary composer–prodigy in the history of music, was just midway between his sixteenth and seventeenth birthdays when he composed this piece. He wrote it as a birthday gift for his friend and violin teacher, Eduard Rietz, and the florid first-violin part stands a compliment to that musician’s abilities. Rietz had been the concertmaster of the Berlin Court Orchestra in 1819, and that was the position he held when Mendelssohn wrote for him his rarely played D minor Violin Concerto (not to be confused with the later, more famous E minor Concerto). Rietz was on the way to becoming an accomplished conductor, too, when he was swept away by tuberculosis in 1832, a few months after his twenty-ninth birthday. It was Franz Liszt who broke the news to Mendelssohn.
The string octet was in no way a classic chamber music genre. Louis Spohr had produced the first of his four “double quartets” in 1823, but despite their identical combination of instruments they hew to a fundamentally different concept from Mendelssohn’s. Where Spohr’s two string quartets operate as independent units, Mendelssohn uses his eight instruments as a single ensemble capable of any interactive permutations. In this regard, Mendelssohn’s Octet is quite closely related to the dozen string symphonies he had been composing during the preceding years, a connection underscored by the composer’s instruction on the published score: “This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character.” He would later arrange the Octet’s Scherzo as an orchestral piece with wind parts so that it might be used as an alternative movement in his C minor Symphony.
In the first two movements Mendelssohn pens a first-violin part filled with the sort of virtuosity that Rietz would soon face in the D minor Violin Concerto. The Allegro moderato ma con fuoco tumbles forth with blistering energy, and the second movement injects deeply felt emotional undercurrents beneath the imaginatively scored ambling.
The Scherzo, which became celebrated as a stand-alone piece in Mendelssohn’s lifetime, is a cousin to the analogous section of the composer’s famous Midsummer Night’s Dream music. This movement also had a literary inspiration—the Walpurgisnacht scene from Goethe’s Faust. Felix’s sister Fanny wrote of this movement, “One feels so near the world of spirits, carried away in the air, half inclined to snatch up a broomstick and follow the aerial procession. At the end the first violin takes a flight with feather-like lightness, and—all has vanished.”
The music of the Scherzo makes a further appearance as a passing allusion in the finale, which is overwhelmingly worked out through fugal procedures (in which themes are introduced one after the other by various instrumental voices and then combined). That a sixteen-year-old composer should have mastered such complicated techniques is in itself astonishing; that he should wield his technique with such debonair brilliance and good humor would seem incredible—but it’s all there in the score.—J.M.K.