A few weeks ago I finished reading a monumental double biography of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin – well written and extremely interesting, as I elaborate in a review on my other blog, but depressing at times. Add the grey and wet weather we experienced in January – not exactly what makes me feel hopeful and optimistic. Luckily there is music to help me and you overcome such moments, music like that joyful Quartet in E flat major that Felix Mendelssohn wrote in 1823.
Studying the classics
Mendelssohn was barely 14 years old at the time he set out to write his first full-length quartet and he did so in just eleven days. R. Larry Todd writes in his biography that the quartet is firmly anchored in the classical Vienna tradition: “Its four movements include a Mozartean Allegro moderato with two contrasting thematic groups; a brooding Adagio in C minor that occasionally anticipates the slow movement of the Octet; a Haydnesque minuet and trio; and a learned double fugue that draws upon the finale of Haydn’s String Quartets Op. 20 and Mozart’s String Quartet K. 387.”
The minuet is extremely well suited to lift my spirit, very playful, as it should be for a tune inspired by a Baroque dance. I doubt Mendelssohn had anything specific in mind when he composed this quartet if it wasn’t expressing his own optimism and joy. A year ago, the Mendelssohns had started what would become a family tradition for some 25 years: the Sunday concerts were they would invite friends, artists, businessmen and politicians for a pleasant cultural indulgence and of course for social networking as we would say today. It was also in 1822 that Felix Mendelssohn’s originally Jewish parents Abraham and Lea convert to the Protestant faith to crown their efforts of assimilation.
“A chamber music composer of the first hour”
Growing up in a family organizing weekly house concerts certainly explains the prominence of chamber music in Mendelssohn’s repertoire. The French musicologists Brigitte François-Sappey describes Mendelssohn as “an excellent score reader, a brilliant pianist, an unapologetic viola player, an enthusiastic violinist” and as such “a chamber music composer of the first hour”. From the age of 11 on he composed little works for chamber music, three quartets for piano and strings between 1822 and 1825, the said string quartet and the Sonata for Violin and Piano in F minor, Op. 4.
Beethoven’s influence on Mendelssohn’s music will be “overwhelming” as François-Sappey puts it, but only at a later stage. In this early phase the Vienna masters Mozart, Haydn and Hummel will be Mendelssohn’s references. Robert Schumann will in 1839 write about Mendelssohn’s chamber music that it is “a little more music than just music”, and he performed his own three string quartets (Op. 41) with Mendelssohn in the audience. Apparently Mendelssohn told Schumann that he didn’t quite know how to express how much he loved Schumann’s music. Like-minded geniuses reunited!
The Quartet in E flat major has been recorded by the Talich Quartet.
© Charles Thibo