Mendelssohn String Octet in E flat, op. 20

performed by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble, or below by the Prazak Quartet and Zemlinsky Quartet

(in a recording I chose not for the sound quality but the engaging experience of watching only eight people make this amazing music)

Its youthful verve, brilliance and perfection make it one of the miracles of nineteenth-century music.

Conrad Wilson

(cover image by Ricardo Gomez Angel)

It has been quite some time since we’ve seen anything from Mendelssohn. We could say the same thing of almost everyone we’ll be seeing in the next week, but before we tackle another of his symphonies or string quartets, I figure we could address another of his earlier works, and one of those, a true standout, is this octet.

It was composed in 1825, completed in October 15; the composer was only 16 years old. The work was written as a birthday present for a friend and violin teacher, one Eduard Ritz. However, it wasn’t until more than a decade later that it received its first public performance, on January 30, 1836, after some revision four years earlier.

The work is about a half hour in length and is in four movements, the first of these making up about half the playing time of the piece. The octet, as it is sometimes more succinctly referred to, is for double string quartet, so four violins and two each of violas and cellos. Of it, the composer said:

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.

The above comes from New York Philharmonic program notes.

Despite its op. 20 numbering, the octet comes before all of the string quartets save the E-flat major quartet from 1823, and a year before the op. 18 string quintet. The chamber works that do come earlier than this one include the three piano quartets, op. 1 thru 3, and the only violin sonata with an opus number, 4. There’s also a clarinet sonata, a piano trio, and some other violin stuff, but not much. Let’s not forget, though, about all the chamber symphonies. A child prodigy if there ever was one.

And this work is a chamber work, but it also isn’t. As mentioned above, it’s for ‘double quartet’, but in many places, especially in the finale, there are eight voices in the work, not just the four of first and second violins, violas and cellos, so it has the fullness and heft (and structure and layout) of a symphony. It could be a chamber symphony, really an achievement of the highest order, some would even say unparalleled.

Again, the first movement gives us half of the work’s playing time. The opening gives us a big orchestral swell, the violins reaching their high register as cellos come in below them. Throughout this work, the standout elements are the clarity of the writing. Mendelssohn, even at 16, had a masterful touch, an instinct even, for this kind of writing and it shows. In fact, by this time, the composer had already written his first symphony, which I quite love, but this work strikes an even greater balance of fullness and clarity. The first movement has its two themes, a development section and recapitulation, and through it all, the piece never loses its focus or balance, an exquisite musical accomplishment.

The second movement slows things down a bit, but while things may slow down or broaden out, the work remains as taut as ever, remaining a pristine, focused thing of beauty, almost serenade like in passages, but with full-bodied climaxes here and there. Again, the 16-year-old composer balances tension and release and all the rest for another example of perfection.

The scherzo is a bustling, ornate affair, marked ‘allegro leggierissimofull of florid detail while never being ostentatious or losing its polish. It’s a breathtaking little ride, the shortest movement of the work.

The finale, then, must find some way to top the energy of the scherzo, and I’d say the scherzo was bustling with a kind of hushed energy, always just a little muffled. The presto finale begins with frantic cellos, and this ripples upward throughout the octet, and here and there, among all the contrapuntal action and independent voices and layers are moments where all eight players lock into step and the result is electrifying. The movement begins and ends with this kind of energy, to great effect.

Did you forget this was a chamber work?

It’s understandable. We don’t have the added color and texture of woodwinds or brass or timpani or anything, but was there ever a point at which you felt we needed it? The young composer here shows an almost frustratingly masterful command of the forces he’s chosen to work with, and one might wonder what more could possibly be accomplished in a form like this. Indeed, I can’t currently think of a single other string octet of this magnitude (or otherwise) aside from the one that appears on the same disc alongside this work, that being the op. 176 octet from Joachim Raff, to which I have not listened. I’m sure there are others, but this is surely a pinnacle of not only the octet form, but of chamber music, of string symphonies….

It’s magnificently beautiful, no doubt, a work of the highest musical craft, overflowing with crystalline, contrapuntal clarity, shimmering layers of music and perfect voicing that few composers have (had?) the skill to write. It’s certainly beautiful, but… can something be too perfect? I’m not sure. My enjoyment from this work comes from an admiration, even wonderment at the perfection of the piece. I suspect this is what the musical equivalent of the golden triangle might sound like, something in absolute perfect balance and measure.

It seems Mendelssohn came out of the womb writing faultless counterpoint, but at least in the work of his we’ll discuss next week, it’s not just about counterpoint and clarity. There’s a sense of maturity and polish that’s more than just textbook skill, but we’ll get to that in a few days. I don’t dislike this piece; put away your sword. It’s an almost unattainable level of craft, indeed. For pure enjoyment, though, I’d much rather listen to what we’ll be seeing from him next week, so stay tuned.


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