The summer hasn’t begun yet, and already I feel nostalgic like I would at the end of it. But that is entirely Felix Mendelssohn’s fault. So many of his pieces evoke in my mind the end of summer – is that the Romantic disease? Probably. His violin concerto in E minor is a case in point, however today Felix’ chamber music is on my mind: the String Quartet No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 12. It is a very early piece, written in 1829, when Mendelssohn was 20 years old. It has to do with a girl that he hallen fallen in love with, a passion alas that wasn’t reciprocated.
In 1827 Felix spent “idyllic days”, as his biographer R. Larry Todd puts it, in Sakrow near Potsdam and he wrote a song called “Frage” (question). Its subject is the hope that a secret admirer asks the moon and the stars about him, Felix. A true Romantic subject, very much appropriate to an 18-year-old man. The song inspired the first movement of the quartet, and initially Felix dedicated the quartet to Betty Pistor, a member of the Singakademie that Felix accompanied on the piano. By the time however Mendelssohn had completed the quartet, Betty had married the jurist Adolf Rudorff, and in 1830 he instructed the violinist Ferdinand David, in whose possession the score was, to strike Betty Pistor’s initials out and replace it by “B.R.”
In the summer of 1829, when Mendelssohn composed the quartet in E flat major, he stayed in the United Kingdom as pianist and as a tourist. His agenda was brimful with appointments, nevertheless by the beginning of July he had finished the first three movements. On September 6, after a trip to Scotland, the piece was completed. It reflects Ludwig van Beethoven’s style which is hardly surprising since Beethoven was a beacon for both Felix and his sister Fanny.
The introduction to the first movement recalls Beethoven’s opening of the String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major “Harp” (Op. 74). But if Mendelssohn has followed in the footsteps of the master, who had died only two years earlier, he demonstrated in the second part of the first movement that he had already found a language of his own, the languishing, emotional, intimate language of Romanticism.
The traditional scherzo as the second movement is being replaced by a canzonetta, very short, full of joy and lightness, with quick, dance-like figures. It is followed by an equally short slow, reflective and solemn third movement with two aggressive passages marked con fuoco. This leads into the lively finale with a theme from the first movement appearing both in the middle of the finale and the coda – cyclic themes were a hallmark of some of Beethoven’s quartets too.
The beginning of Romanticism
I must admit that it was this quartet that propelled me to delve really deep into Beethoven’s quartets since the links between the two had initially escaped me and fascinated me once I had discovered them. The chamber music of both composers is full of deep emotions, personal in Mendelssohn’s, detached in Beethoven’s case, and these wait only to be called up by us. The Talich Quartet has recorded the String Quartet No.1 in E flat major along with his other quartets of Felix Mendelssohn, and if you find time for a little Romantic nostalgia and “Herzschmerz” (heartache), this is an excellent choice. Should like to compare them to Beethoven’s quartets, try the recordings by the Vermeer Quartet.
© Charles Thibo