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Name of Work

Mendelssohn, Felix (1809-1847)
String Quintet in B-flat, Op. 87

Movements:
Allegro vivace
Andante scherzando
Adagio e lento
Allegro molto vivace

Performances:


Sep 19, 2004



Joseph Genualdi, Viola
Jasmine Lin, Violin
Rami Solomonow, Viola
Roger Chase, Viola
Clancy Newman, Cello


Sep 20, 2004



Joseph Genualdi, Viola
Jasmine Lin, Violin
Rami Solomonow, Viola
Roger Chase, Viola
Clancy Newman, Cello

MENDELSSOHN-Quintet #2 in B-Flat, Op. 87, for two violins, two violas, and cello

Composed in 1845

"I consider it impermissible to compose something that I do not feel with every fiber of my being," Felix Mendelssohn once wrote. "It would be as if I were lying, for each note has just as specific a meaning as each word does, perhaps even a more distinct one." On another occasion, he came up with an even more personal and revealing comparison of spoken vs. musical thought: "So many words are uttered about music, and yet so little is said. I think words are not enough. If I thought they were, I would stop making music. People complain that music is so open to interpretation and that they don't know what they are supposed to think. Words, on the other hand, they think, can be understood by everyone. For me it's exactly the other way around, and not just with long speeches, but with single words too. What music expresses for me, what I love, are not ideas that are too indefinite to put into words, but too definite." And on yet another occasion: "A word never means to one person what it means to another. Only a song can say the same thing to everyone, can awaken the same feeling -- a feeling that cannot be expressed in words."

Tremendous depths of feeling underlie Mendelssohn's works, in spite of the easy skill and polished perfection they exhibit on their surfaces. A word that has been used to dismiss his genius is "facile," and in the same vein, critics have charged that everything in his life was given to him, that he didn't have to work for anything: the prodigiously gifted child of rich and cultured parents, he received a first-class education, extensive travel opportunities, lucrative professional positions, and eventually international fame, along the way achieving a happy marriage. (One hears more than a little envy in some of these dismissive pronouncements.) Yet the music is no less meaningful, no less engrossing, no less expressive just because it was created by a happy man.

Music for strings forms a large part of Mendelssohn's output. When still only a boy he wrote 13 symphonies for small string orchestra, and his first mature masterpiece was the String Octet of 1825, which pre-dates by a year his first triumph for full orchestra, the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, and the Quintet No. 1 for two violins, two violas, and cello, which in its final form (1832) became in part a memorial to a good friend prematurely deceased, the violinist Eduard Rietz. In the late 1820s Mendelssohn became mesmerized by the late string quartets of Beethoven, intensively studying their formal complexities and reveling in their emotional expressiveness. His own first quartets (Opp. 12 and 13) have been viewed as specific reactions to his experience of the late Beethoven works; he would go on to write five more works in this basic chamber-music genre.

To the medium of the string quintet he returned just one more time, in 1845, working on the B-flat major piece during a brief vacation period from his strenuous duties as composer-in-residence for the court of the King of Prussia. His oratorio Elijah would shortly have its acclaimed premiere, and he continued his association with the city of Leipzig, its Gewandhaus Orchestra and the conservatory he himself had founded.

The Allegro vivace first movement opens in the home key of B-flat with pride of place given to the violins, which set out an exuberant, triadic main theme while the other players provide a fast-paced accompaniment. The second theme, more lyrical, is shared by all the instruments. Each theme is rhythmically punctuated with triplet patterns, figures that also become contrapuntal contrasts to the principal melodies. In traditional sonata-form style, Mendelssohn breaks up and recombines his themes in the development section while exploring various keys and textures and providing light-and-shade contrast via dynamics. But he continues, in a sense, to develop both themes in the recapitulation, expanding each one further and enriching them with yet more ingenious counterpoint.

Mendelssohn's scherzo movements are always singled out as superbly-crafted moments of fleeting musical ecstasy. Most familiar are those from the Midsummer Night's Dream incidental music and the Octet. This quintet has no less magical a scherzo movement: a dancing, light-footed fugato that conjures up a kind of nocturnal fairyland. It moves back and forth between arco (bowed) and pizzicato (plucked) playing styles and between major and minor modes. The third movement, in the semi-remote key of D minor, is a decided contrast in mood to its predecessors. Instead of rapidly-shifting counterpoint, the texture here is more chordal; the harmonies are rich and complex. Cast in A-B-A form, it resolves its tensions and griefs with a lyrical final passage in D major. Its tempo marking might seem redundant, since both adagio and lento are usually translated into English as "slow"; Mendelssohn was likely trying to convey a sense of mood with the first word (contemplative, nearly sad) and a sense of pace with the second.

In the finale, Allegro vivace once again with molto (very much) thrown in for emphasis, the composer gives the first main theme to the violins and the second one to the violas. Yet another theme emerges in the development section, one that combines motives from Theme I with a succession of descending chromatic notes. Extensively explored during the development, in both contrapuntal and chordal styles, it assumes a major role in the recapitulation.

The year 1845 might be regarded as Mendelssohn's last in his accustomed physical and emotional security. In the time that followed, his always-frail health became more so; he had been working feverishly for a number of years, and the demands of concert tours, teaching, and composition were wearing away his stamina. In 1847 he suffered perhaps the greatest shock of his life, the death of his beloved older sister, Fanny. He would die within six months of her from a stroke, aged just 38 years.

Program Notes by Andrea Lamoreaux

Performance date: September 19 & 20, 2004



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