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Octet in E-flat major, op. 20

September 24, 2017: Paul Neubauer, viola; Arnaud Sussman, violin; Rafael Figueroa, cello; Michael Brown, piano

The sixteen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn completed one of the ultimate masterpieces of the chamber music literature—the Octet—on October 15, 1825. Even Mozart, with all his well-known precocity, did not create a work of such exquisite perfection by this time in his creative life. Dedicated to Mendelssohn’s violin and viola teacher Eduard Rietz, whose birthday fell on October 17, the Octet is unique not only in its revelation of such consummate skill in so young a composer but also in its instrumental configuration of four violins, two violas, and two cellos.

Where did Mendelssohn get the idea for a string octet in which the instruments are not treated in double quartet fashion—as in Louis Spohr’s Double Quartets—but in myriad inventive combinations of the eight instruments? We find no true precedents for his stroke of genius. Though antiphonal effects between two quartets occasionally surface in the Octet, Mendelssohn most often layers the eight parts in an orchestral texture, from which each instrument emerges with solo lines—the first violin most prominently, as befitting a piece in which his teacher probably played the first violin part. Mendelssohn stressed his orchestral intentions in the score: “The 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.” No doubt he meant “usual” for chamber music in general, but there really is no other piece quite like the Octet with its combination of orchestral textures and technically virtuosic writing for each player.

Since he was thirteen Felix had enjoyed a remarkable friendship with the aging Goethe, Germany’s most venerated writer of the time. The composer’s sister Fanny revealed that in the effervescent Scherzo, Felix had set to music a stanza from the Walpurgis Night Dream from Goethe’s Faust, Part I: “The flight of the clouds and the veil of mist / Are lit from above. / A breeze in the leaves, a wind in the reeds, / And all has vanished.” She continued:

To me alone he told this idea: the whole piece is to be played staccato and pianissimo, the tremolos coming in now and then, the trills passing away with quickness of lightning; everything new and strange, and at the same time most insinuating and pleasing, 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 a feather-like lightness, and—all has vanished.

Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd speculates convincingly that Mendelssohn not only represented additional aspects of Goethe’s dream sequence in the Scherzo—an orchestra of crickets, frogs, flies, mosquitos, and even a bagpipe blowing soap bubbles—but that other movements, too, may contain inspirations from Faust. He cites the first movement’s flamboyant, “Faustian” first violin part, with its bold soaring and tumbling opening, and the grandiose proportions of the movement as a whole. The archaic, lamenting quality of the slow movement perhaps reflects the cathedral scene before the Walpurgis Night, when the guilt-ridden Gretchen attends a church service and faints. And it may be that the fugal finale represents the struggle between Faust and Mephistopheles for Gretchen’s soul, which would also help to explain the reference to “And He shall reign for ever and ever” from the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s Messiah.

Speculations aside, the first movement shows the kind of mastery of sonata form that enabled the composer to use it flexibly. In the recapitulation he felt free to bring back ideas in a different order and his coda shows the kind of developmental thinking that Beethoven liked to impart to his codas.

The soulful Andante, ostensibly in C minor, spends most of its time ingeniously avoiding that key. Mendelssohn’s modulations spin out effortlessly and eventually leave the listener in F minor rather in the home key. The second theme captivates with its slowly cascading chains of thirds, which impart a sense of yearning through beautiful suspensions.

Mendelssohn’s inspiration for his celebrated Scherzo has been mentioned, but we should also note that the music poured from his pen as a complete thought. Only this movement of the four shows no crossings-out, revisions, or afterthoughts in the manuscript. Instead of using a traditional scherzo-trio-scherzo form he opted for a miniature sonata form, with the development section breaking out in seven-part imitation that anticipates the fugal finale. Mendelssohn himself noted that the Scherzo almost always elicited an encore. He later bowed to its popularity by adding wind parts and substituting it for the minuet of his First Symphony for a performance in London, a practice that was often repeated.

The finale begins with a touch of humor as the second cello in its lowest register presents an energetic solo line, which soon blossoms into a cheerful eight-voice fugue. Mendelssohn offers the perfect foil to this contrapuntal complexity with a powerful second theme in fortissimo octaves. His inspired mix of sonata and rondo form, infused by fugal sections surely had its roots in Mozart’s celebrated Jupiter Symphony finale. Bows to two of his other predecessors occur in the development (middle episode)—first the Handel reference noted above, then a nod to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as he cleverly recalls the Scherzo just before the recapitulation. Throughout one can only marvel at the deft contrapuntal handling of the eight individual voices by the sixteen-year-old.

The Octet, whose inspiration and effectiveness Mendelssohn may have recaptured but never surpassed, retained a lofty place in his affections. He later called it “my favorite of all my compositions,” nostalgically recalling that “I had the most beautiful time writing it.”

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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