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String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13

November 14, 2021 – Schumann String Quartet

Mendelssohn’s A minor Quartet would have been an amazing achievement for a mature, fifty- or sixty-year-old composer. That he wrote it at the age of eighteen can scarcely be comprehended. Yet it may have been just because of his youth that it emerged as a masterpiece: he was young enough to have been greatly impressed by the works of Beethoven’s late period, but not old enough to be daunted by them. Mendelssohn wrote his A minor Quartet in 1827, the very year Beethoven died. Not only was Mendelssohn influenced by Beethoven’s Quartet in the same key, op. 132, which he must have known even though it was not published until the end of 1827, but he took thorough notice of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, especially the recall of themes from preceding movements in the Finale and Beethoven’s use of instrumental recitative.

Earlier in 1827 Mendelssohn had composed a short song entitled “Frage” (Question), which set some lines by J. G. Droyson (known as “Voss”): “Ist es wahr? das du stets dort in dem Laubgang?” (Is it true that you are always waiting for me in the arbored walk?) The song, marked Thema, is printed at the head of the Quartet score in the Breitkopf & Härtel Complete Works edition. Mendelssohn used the three-note questioning motive for “Ist es wahr?” as the Quartet’s motto. The use of a “texted” motto naturally brings to mind Beethoven’s last String Quartet, op. 135, published in September 1827, with its “Muss es sein?” “Es muss sein!” motto. The Opus 135 Quartet was not premiered until 1828; but provided Mendelssohn became acquainted with Beethoven’s immediately upon its publication, he would have had nearly a month to incorporate this idea into his Quartet, which he completed on October 27.

Mendelssohn first presents his “Ist es wahr?” motive in the Adagio introduction just before the onset of the Allegro vivace. He also bases the main theme of the movement on the motto, though disguised by the change to the minor mode and a switch to 4/4 instead of 3/4: after the scurrying sixteenth notes, the viola, imitated by the other instruments, plays the theme based on the motto rhythm.

The use of E minor as the secondary key area gives the first movement some of its intensity, as do the fugal writing and high level of dissonance, which again bring Beethoven to mind. We know from some remarks Mendelssohn made about the Quartet’s success with the Parisian avant-garde that he knew he was being revolutionary.

The slow movement, curiously marked Adagio non lento, reaches an even higher level of dissonance, especially in the fugal D minor section that follows the opening F major passage. Links to the motto theme can be found in both. After the climax of the developmental middle section, a violin cadenza brings about the return of the opening theme; the fugal section is recalled, but masterfully transformed.

Rather than a scherzo, which was usual by this time, Mendelssohn wrote an Intermezzo for the third movement. Its elfin “trio” brings to mind the fleeting scherzos from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Octet. The main theme and the trio are cleverly joined in the coda, a feature he would return to in his later quartets.

The finale shows a truly remarkable conception. It opens with a dramatic violin recitative over tremolo chords, and ingenious thematic references begin to crowd in. Mendelssohn increases the drama by delaying the establishment of the home key of A minor. The exposition ends forcefully in E minor. The development begins with a subdued treatment of the fugal subject from the slow movement in three-part counterpoint. The violent octave outburst signals the end of the development at which point the movement’s opening recitative over tremolo reappears. Eventually the first violin alone states the fugal subject in the original key, meter, and tempo. Its continuation prepares the work’s perhaps inevitable conclusion: the return of A major, and the opening of the first movement, based on “Ist es wahr?” This time, however, Mendelssohn fully makes the connection with the song by quoting its ending completely: “Was ich fühle, das begreift nur, die es mitfühlt, und die treu mir ewig bleibt” (What I feel, can only mean, she feels it with me, and will stay ever true to me).

(Note: Though it is generally agreed that the Quartet is in A minor, it is frequently listed in A major because of the short opening and closing sections in the major.)

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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