String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80
January 10, 2010 – Emerson String Quartet
Felix Mendelssohn grew up with every familial and material advantage, and he made the most of his unique opportunities. He composed brilliantly from an early age and developed astonishing virtuosity as a pianist, organist, and conductor. Highly educated, he loved literature, poetry, and philosophy and became an adept linguist, painter, and writer. His ever-supportive father, Abraham, a wealthy banker, bought a magnificent estate in Berlin, which he turned into an artistic focal point of the culturally rich city. Distinguished artists, literary figures, and well-to-do colleagues attended the Mendelssohn family’s salon concerts, where the children performed, often playing their own music with full orchestras hired by their father. A child prodigy on the order of Mozart, Felix was admired by no less a figure than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who told the boy, “I am Saul and you are David. Come to me when I am sad and discouraged and quiet my soul with your sweet harmonies.”
Felix’s older sister Fanny was – like Mozart’s older sister, Nannerl – also a child prodigy of remarkable capabilities. At 13 Fanny scored a Händel Oratorio for full orchestra as an exercise, and as a birthday gift for her father, she memorized and performed all 24 Preludes from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Although her compositional skills were not encouraged to the same degree as her brother’s, she wrote 466 pieces of her own over the course of her life.
While the Mozart siblings eventually grew apart, Felix and Fanny grew increasingly devoted to each other during their short lives. There was never a hint of rivalry or jealousy between them. On the contrary, they dedicated many works to each other, advocated for each other’s music, and expressed extreme mutual fondness and admiration throughout their lives.
When in 1847 Felix received the news of his beloved sister’s sudden death by a massive stroke, he was so devastated that he immediately suffered a stroke of his own. Unable to attend her funeral, he sank into a profound depression. His wife insisted that he take time off from his daunting performance and administrative schedule to travel with their family to the Interlaken region of Switzerland, where he could regain his physical health and emotional equilibrium. While in Switzerland, he spent his days hiking in the mountains, making watercolors and drawings of the Swiss landscape, and composing his string quartet in F minor, which he completed in September of that year. Soon after returning to Germany, however, his inconsolable grief came back to him. He suffered another stroke and within two months was dead at the age of 38.
The F-Minor String Quartet, his last completed work, expresses his rage and despair at the loss of his beloved sister. Although Mendelssohn’s music is admired for its flawless technique and aura of classical refinement, some have criticized it for showing too much emotional restraint. The F-minor quartet completely belies this portrayal. It is, from beginning to end, a work of unprecedented intensity and turbulence, arguably his most impassioned and tragic work.
The opening movement begins in a burst of violent, shuddering tremolos, clearly representing the shock and grief he must have felt when he was first informed of his beloved sister’s death. Thunderbolt-like fortissimos and stomping accents express the depth of his despair. The music is riven by extreme contrasts as Mendelssohn tries to calm himself, only to be wrenched anew by the slashing pain of loss. Toward the end of the movement a unison outburst ratchets the intensity up another notch, and the movement careens to a desperate conclusion.
A Scherzo follows, but not the typically light, “Mendelssohnian” Scherzo of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The mood is operatic in its agitation, with fierce, off-kilter syncopations, heavy accents, and severe passages where the entire quartet again plays in unison. The contrasting Trio introduces a Verdian ghost dance in the viola and cello, which accompany a low, ominous violin duet. After returning to the agitated Scherzo, the ghosts slink off in a spooky, phantasmal coda.
The Adagio is a warmly nostalgic song without words, reminiscent of the intimate piano pieces that Felix and Fanny wrote and often dedicated to each other. Closely woven string textures reflect their tight emotional bond. Although the movement begins as a wistful elegy, it builds to a cathartic fortissimo climax in which funereal, dotted rhythms predominate. The intensity gradually recedes although the dotted rhythms continue to echo through the texture, and the movement ends in a sweetly resigned pianissimo.
Desperation and drama return full force in the final movement of the quartet. Shivering passagework is interrupted by crashing, dissonant chords. Extreme virtuosity is demanded of the four quartet members as Mendelssohn’s final work drives headlong toward a tragic conclusion.
By Michael Parloff