Mendelssohn String Quartet no. 1 in E flat, op. 12

performed by the Talich Quartet, or below in a nice performance from the Halcyon Music Festival with a small introduction

The opening of this work seems like such a mature, polished, well-executed work for a young, early composition like a first string quartet.

But no.

By this point, Mendelssohn was already twenty years old, which in today’s society, looking at most twenty-year-olds, or my own twenty-year-old self, seems young and quite wet behind the ears, but remember: Young Felix had an early start. By the time he was twenty, he’d written a dozen string symphonies, his first full symphony, piano quartets, songs for voice and piano, and an opera. In fact, today’s op. 12 comes right after the first symphony, which is op. 11.

Actually though, in this video, the guy with the Mac tells us in his introduction that this piece was actually composed a few years after the op. 13 quartet no. 2 in A minor, was started (likely) in Berlin but completed in London, on Mendelssohn’s first trip there of many, and the speaker above mentions the Hebrides overture and Scottish symphony in conjunction with this work.

There are a few things that make this work interesting, as the violist mentions. For one, There’s no scherzo or minuet in the listing of the movements, being replaced by a ‘canzonetta’, a wonderful little movement we’ll talk about shortly. Also, each of the movements is in a different key, which is rare. There’s something interesting about the final movement that we’ll discuss when we get there.

There’s a brief, very expressive introduction to the first movement that leads into the main subject. It’s almost mournful at turns, in its own very brief existence. We then find ourselves in a very fast 4/4 time, but counted in two, still a rich expressive pair of themes for this sonata form. Listen to this first movement, think of the young composer on his graduation trip, traveling through Europe, and the mastery he showed in writing something as engaging and rich as this. It’s not just a bunch of pretty melodies or the almost mechanical counterpoint of the earliest string symphonies. This is polished, well-executed artistry. It’s music that doesn’t need words.

We’re not at any loss without our scherzo or minuet movement, as the canzonetta in G minor is a breathtaking movement of simple beauty and crafted harmonies and melodies, folk-like dances with pizzicato accompaniment with a more lively, almost fluttering, energetic central portion that stealthily decays back down to our opening content. Each repeated section of the movement comes and goes but gives an impression of such depth behind seeming simplicity.

The third movement is in B major and lyrical in a more straightforward way, almost like a literal song. The middle two movements together just about equal the length of the first or last movement. Our slow movement is marked andante espressivo, certainly a fitting marking, and is like one melodic line, a four-minute song, and it might just be me, but I hear glimmers of stuff from earlier in the quartet… But if you don’t here, you will in the finale.

It’s nice that we had a quiet moment in the third movement, because the finale in 12/8 is marked molto allegro e vivace, and is it ever. This furious tempo, emphasized in places by repeated notes across the board, makes for a crunchy, lively final movement that suddenly,  prematurely, reaches a G minor chord that throws us into C minor and common time just briefly, but long enough that Mendy brings back some of the content from the first movement. Back in 12/8 time now, we’re seeing not just this movement, but now the whole piece in perspective. It’s a fantastic little trick, and then the ear is suddenly looking  for these connections, bringing the whole piece together.

That introduction might have seemed out of place, or just a pretty way to open the piece, but the young composer shows the cards he had up his sleeve all along. And it’s not just the introduction; we get whole quotes of the first movement here in the finale, unifying the entire quartet. This is a wonderful way to create a large-scale structure that supports the weight of longer, heavy pieces, but this is only a 23-ish minute quartet. The end result is that it feels, at least to me, quite together, with two shorter, almost episodic middle movements and the story that continues in the finale where the first movement left off.

I’ll be interested to see where the quartets go after this ‘first’ one, and how such a polished, well-crafted work like this falls into place with his later work. He’s shown us he was already a magically gifted young child, and at 20 years old, he was already a master craftsman. Where does he go from here? We shall see.

But not immediately. Mendelssohn has appeared for a reason. Stay tuned this coming week as one of Mendelssohn’s fellow students under Carl Friedrich Zelter kicks off a series we’ll be spending time on in September. See you soon.


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