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What Makes Mendelssohn Great?


The Celebrity Series of Boston will be presenting the Borromeo and Ariel String Quartets in  “What Makes it Great?” featuring the Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat Major on Saturday evening, November 7, 2009 at Jordan Hall.

There’s a difference between one who is a genius and one who is precocious. One writer says that “genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains,” while another says that “a genius is someone who can do effortlessly what nobody else can do at all.” Mendelssohn has been called the “gentle genius,” who is often compared with Mozart. Mozart’s career is the more famous, perhaps, for its ups and downs, and for its unquestioned successes in opera. But Mendelssohn, as a composer, was more precocious than Mozart, in that nothing that Mozart had composed by the age of sixteen matches Mendelssohn’s achievement at the same age.

Their backgrounds were different, to be sure. Mozart was schooled in hard knocks from an early age, when his loving but domineering father dragged him and his sister all over Europe to be exhibited as Wunderkinder. Much of the power of Mozart’s later style has been attributed to the inner strength he derived in breaking away from his father’s influence. Mendelssohn’s well-to-do family allowed his extraordinary talents to flourish in a more sheltered environment; indeed, when he was twelve years old, his doting parents went so far as to hire a string orchestra for him to conduct once a week. Mendelssohn amply repaid this pampering with a veritable flood of early compositions that show amazing mastery for one so young, including twelve symphonies and several concertos — not to mention that in his teens he was already an excellent pianist and soon became one of the greatest of nineteenth-century conductors. (In 1829, aged 20, Mendelssohn directed the Berlin Singakademie in an epoch-making revival, the first performance of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion since its premiere a century earlier.)

In 1825 Mendelssohn composed one of the all-time greatest works of chamber music: the Octet in E-flat major for strings. String quartet groups all over the world today relish the opportunity to join forces in performing this mighty piece.From the opening measures, it proclaims a new kind of music: an upward-surging melody, stretching over two octaves, outlines only the notes of the tonic triad, while the dramatic action is in the bass line, moving inexorably downward in dissonant counterpoint. The sonata-form dialogue of this movement, typically for the Romantic era, is wrought in the extreme contrast in character between the relentlessly developed first theme and the more restrained and lyrical second theme, while the overall sound is fortified by an energetic, thick-textured accompaniment in the movement’s biggest episodes. The entire movement is marked by huge swings in energy and overall mood that never interfere with the narrative progress. No wonder the tempo marking is Allegro moderato, ma con fuoco — “but with fire.”

The Andante in C minor offers a much more restrained sound, a quiet song in 6/8 meter, a calm between storms. It has a barcarolle-like quality not unlike the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Quartet op. 59 no. 3 — and it is good to remember that Beethoven was still alive when this Octet was written. Some listeners will be reminded, too, of Schubert’s Octet (for clarinet, bassoon, horn, string quartet and double bass), written two years earlier, which also has a lyrical second movement in 6/8. The closing theme of this movement is marked by upward-resolving suspensions that support the bittersweet character of the melody.

Mendelssohn stated that the fugitive G minor Scherzo movement, Allegro leggierissimo, was inspired by the “Walpurgisnacht” in Goethe’s Faust, but this reference will be lost on most of us who strain to listen to the staccato which proceeds at lightning speed and without even once rising above a pianissimo dynamic. Most scherzos are in triple meter, but Mendelssohn wrote this one in 2/4, as he would a few years later in his Symphony no. 3 in A minor, the so called “Scottish.”

I think it was Tovey who said that Mendelssohn was the last composer who knew how to write a genuine Presto. If there is a weakness in the Octet, it is that the Scherzo and the Presto finale are too closely similar in tempo; but this is compensated by the entirely different demeanor and dynamic. Where the Scherzo is pianissimo and often static in harmony, the finale is largely fortissimo and all over the place in rapidly-moving harmony, mostly with two contrasting melodic lines in half notes and furiously agitated eighths. One imagines that the players, by the end of the piece, are exhausted and bursting with energy at the same time. The movement speeds by so quickly that the form, a free rondo with fugal development, is hard to grasp; it also includes cyclic material from the first and third movements, but well integrated, not like sudden flashbacks. At the same time, one realizes that Mendelssohn’s sui generis approach to form in all four of the movements depends on his mature mastery of the sonata form, which is closest to the classical sonata allegro in the first movement and markedly but not completely divergent in the other three.

Perhaps Mendelssohn didn’t want to be too classically bound by received formal relationships as the music poured out of him in this big, hearty work. He certainly knew his Mozart and Beethoven, and it shows, but he knew himself best of all, and that is what counts. And only a year later he wrote his best work of all, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when he was seventeen years old.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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  1. I enjoyed the comparison between Mendelssohn and Mozart.

    Comment by Barbara Marden — October 31, 2009 at 10:00 am

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