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.