Octet for strings : Work information

Composers
(Jacob Ludwig) Felix Mendelssohn ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Ensemble Instrumental de France

This work

Work name
Octet for strings
Work number
Op. 20
Key
E flat major
Genre
A
Composed
1825-01-01 02:00:00

This recording

Label
Forlane CI
Producer
Ivan Pastor
Engineer
Jean-Martial Golaz
Recording date
1985-01-01 00:00:00

The Composers

(Jacob Ludwig) Felix Mendelssohn

One of the leading German composers of the 1830s and 40s, Felix Mendelssohn's music is often cited as evidence of the growing tension between musical Classicism and Romanticism in the post-Beethoven generation.

Described by Schumann as the 'Mozart of the 19th century', his style, fully formed by the age of 20, combines Mozartean grace with the drama of Beethoven and the complexity of J S Bach. Many of his orchestral, choral and chamber works are firmly established in the repertoire, and he remains a popular figure with concert-goers.

Born the son of a Jewish banker in Hamburg on 3 February 1809 and secretly baptized into the Protestant faith, Mendelssohn's early musical education was supervised by his mother. Along with his talented sister Fanny, he displayed remarkable ability on a number of instruments and as a composer.

At the age of 12 he had already written, and seen performed, a fully produced Singspiel and had composed numerous works in other genres. A solid general education and trips around Europe exposed him to new literary and musical influences to build on his knowledge of Bach, Mozart and Haydn, and by 1825 he had written his first masterpiece, the String Octet. This was followed in 1826 by another remarkable work, the Midsummer Night's Dream overture, pointing to his love for Shakespeare.

Following the study of legal history, geography and aesthetics at the University of Berlin, Mendelssohn embarked in 1829 on a musical tour of Italy, France and England, meeting Goethe along the way. While in Britain he undertook a walking tour of Scotland where the Symphony No. 3 and Hebrides overture were conceived. Indeed, Mendelssohn was a frequent visitor to England throughout the rest of his career.

In 1833, Mendelssohn was offered a position as Düsselfdorf music director. His energies were devoted to reviving the oratorios of Haydn and Handel, having already presented a revival performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion in 1829. This no doubt prompted him to begin his own oratorio, St Paul in 1834.

A move to Leipzig occurred in 1835, where Mendelssohn served as municipal music director and conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Over the next 12 years, he turned this orchestra into one of Europe's most prestigious ensembles.

International fame was secured in 1836 by his decision to direct the 18th Niederrheinisches Musikfest in Dusseldorf; shortly after he married Cécile Jeanrenaud, daughter of a Huguenot minister. A time of personal and professional happiness, Mendelssohn was constantly in demand to conduct the major music festivals of Europe.

In September 1841 he was appointed Kapellmeister to Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, and charged with the task of trying to revive Berlin's musical life. Mendelssohn's duties were never clear and he continued to return to Leipzig to conduct, eventually resigning the Berlin position in September 1844. Meanwhile his Leipzig efforts had helped found a new Conservatory and won him an honorary citizenship of the city.

The last years were dominated by the composition and performance of his great oratorio, Elijah . However in 1847, returning to Frankfurt from England, Mendelssohn was shattered to hear of Fanny's death. Mendlessohn's own demise was not far off either and, after suffering a number of strokes, he died on 4 November 1847 and was buried next to his beloved sister.

Mourned internationally, his reputation suffered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries due to the anti-Semitic views of Wagner and, later, the Nazis who banned his music. However, in recent years, the quality and attractiveness of his music has won him a loyal following among concert-goers.

Related Composers: Schubert, Beethoven, BerliozMozartWeber, J S BachHandel

Track listing

  • Allegro moderato ma con fuoco 13:53 min
  • Andante 7:28 min
  • Scherzo: Allegro leggierissimo 4:25 min
  • Presto 6:13 min

Notes

Composed, incredibly, when Mendelssohn was just sixteen, the Octet for strings is the first of the composer's mature compositions. Written in 1825 for the 23rd birthday of a family friend, Eduard Rietz, the Octet bears the hallmarks of genius. Mendelssohn approached the form with total freshness and ingenuity, making full use of the resources at his diposal, to the extent that his octet is the defining example of the genre.

The complexities of the part-writing, evident in the playful Scherzo and the following Presto, are particularly striking. The Presto itself is a whirlwind moto perpetuo that races along to a thrilling conclusion.

The opening movement is more lyrical in conception, its themes arching from the depths to soar above the texture. The marking con fuoco (with fire) suggests the importance of rhythmic energy in defining Mendelssohn's approach to the form. The graceful Andante that follows is a sensitive and melancholic set of variations, based on a folk-like theme.

In this one piece, Mendelssohn seems to display the major characteristics of his compositional style fully formed. That the Octet is also immediately attractive and one of the most popular pieces of chamber music is an added bonus!