Questions or technical issues? Please email info@chicagochambermusic.org


CCM WebSite

EncoreCCM

Name of Work

Mendelssohn, Felix (1809-1847)
Octet for strings in E-flat Major, Op. 20 (2007)

Movements:
Allegro moderato ma con fuoco
Andante
Scherzo: Allegro leggierissimo
Presto

Performances:


Apr 22, 2007



Robert Chen, Violin
Jasmine Lin, Violin
Joseph Genualdi, Viola
Kozue Funakoshi, Violin
Rami Solomonow, Viola
Yukiko Ogura, Viola
Katinka Kleijn, Cello
Stephen Balderston, Cello


Apr 23, 2007



Robert Chen, Violin
Jasmine Lin, Violin
Joseph Genualdi, Viola
Kozue Funakoshi, Violin
Rami Solomonow, Viola
Yukiko Ogura, Viola
Katinka Kleijn, Cello
Stephen Balderston, Cello


Apr 16, 2000




Apr 17, 2000




MENDELSSOHN-Octet in E-Flat Major, Op. 20

Composed in 1825

BACKGROUND
Genius, in whatever realm, is something at which ordinary mortals marvel, and especially awe-inspiring is the phenomenon of the child prodigy – or to use the evocative German word Wunderkind, or Wonder Child. Musical talent almost always emerges at a very early age, but even so, some figures stand out as prodigies of prodigies. If Mozart is the first to come to mind, certainly Felix Mendelssohn follows him right up. Mendelssohn had many advantages that Mozart didn't share: he grew up in a wealthy, culturally sophisticated environment wherein all artistic accomplishment was valued, and good teachers could easily be hired. But even given this kind of head start, so to speak, his childhood and teenage achievements are astonishing. They include symphonies for string orchestra, a chamber opera, the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, and the magical Octet in E-Flat Major that he completed in 1825 at the age of 16. Several of these works received their first hearing at Mendelssohn family concerts, to which friends were invited on Sunday afternoons and during which the young composer often played viola as well as contributing the scores. When the octet was first performed, the first violinist was the work's dedicatee, Mendelssohn's violin teacher, Eduard Rietz, a noted Berlin performer and professor.

There are not many compositions for eight string players. Wind octets were popular in the 18th century. Schubert wrote an Octet for winds and strings, the realm of the string sextet was explored by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Schoenberg. When the virtuoso violinist and prolific composer Ludwig Spohr wrote for eight strings, he deliberately called the pieces double quartets, devising groups that could be contrasted with each other. In like manner, the designation Octet perfectly fits Mendelssohn's piece, since the players are treated as a unified ensemble. Not that there are no solo opportunities, but the overriding character is one of small-ensemble music-making. The teenage composer knew exactly the sound he wanted: "This 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 nature."

If part of understanding Mendelssohn the composer is realizing his extraordinary facility with musical materials from a very early age, part of understanding him as a human being is realizing his deep love and admiration for his older sister, Fanny, who was a composer in her own right and whose husband, Wilhelm Hensel, was a painter. When Fanny died in 1847, Felix's grief was so great that it probably contributed to his own premature death. They shared their thoughts and feelings all their lives. Fanny wrote an especially evocative description of the Scherzo of the Octet, the third movement, marked to be played "as lightly as possible;" it was inspired by the Walpurgischnacht (Witches' Revel) scene in Goethe's Faust, a work and an author that the young Felix revered. "Trains of clouds and flow'ring mist/Illuminate the sky/ Reeds and leaves by wind are kist/Then all must quickly fly."

"To me alone," wrote Fanny, "he told his idea: the whole [Scherzo] is to be played staccato and pianissimo, the tremolandos coming in now and then, the trills passing away with the quickness of lightning; everything new and strange, and at the same time most insinuating and pleasing, that 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 soars feather-light aloft – and all has blown away and vanished."

MUSIC
Mendelssohn noted that he wanted his Octet to be played in symphonic fashion, meaning that the eight instruments are to be considered a unified group, not two contrasted quartets. It is in fact sometimes performed by string orchestra, but tonight we hear the original version. The first violin introduces the main theme of the opening sonata-form movement over gently rocking accompaniment figures. The theme is gradually passed around among the other voices of the ensemble, constantly varied, until the introduction of the second theme, characterized by progressions of parallel intervals of a sixth (on the piano keyboard, an example of a sixth is middle C up to the A above it). The leadership of the first violin and the constant melodic flow continue in the development section, which expands upon the steady sense of variation and contrapuntal interplay we heard in the exposition. Since so much variation of the thematic material has already been heard, the recapitulation is abbreviated. The andante movement is in C minor, the relative minor of E-flat, but the key is not firmly established until several measures have been played that explore a number of other minor tonalities. This device of delaying a movement's main key was a favorite of Beethoven's, and it is a reminder of how much the young Mendelssohn revered Beethoven, whose string quartets strongly influenced his own.

The andante's main theme provides a sense of instability, as opposed to the confidently flowing thematic material of the first movement, and suave consonance is occasionally replaced with dissonant collisions among the contrapuntal lines.

The tempo marking of Allegro Leggierissimo means “Lively and Very Lightly.” The effect of this scherzo, one of Mendelssohn's most famous works of any type, is of fairy dust scattered on the wind. The dynamic level is pianissimo, very soft, and the playing is staccato – sharp and detached – rather than the smooth legato playing we generally expect from string players. The movement is laid out in sonata form, but the sequence of exposition-development-recapitulation is secondary to the ethereal tone colors of this magical night-piece.

The main theme of the presto finale, introduced by the first cello, is contrasted with a theme in unison octaves; we also hear a variant of the second theme of the first movement. The structure of this finale is based on fugal procedures, a reminder that Bach as well as Beethoven had powerful influences on Mendelssohn's creativity. The headlong sense of perpetual motion is briefly brought to a halt by reminiscences of motives from the scherzo, but we end in a swirl of almost frenzied virtuosity.

Program Notes by Andrea Lamoreaux

Performance date: April 22 & 23, 2007



Performance Audio

Play Entire Performance


The audio file for this performance is unavailable at this time.
Play Entire Performance


The audio file for this performance is unavailable at this time.