Dutch violinist Janine Jansen and friends perform Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 during the opening concert of the Internationaal Kamermuziek Festival (International Chamber Music Festival) on December 27, 2019, in Utrecht.
- Janine Jansen, Ludvig Gudim, Johan Dalene, Sonoko Miriam Welde [violin]
- Amihai Grosz, Eivind Holtsmark Ringstad [viola]
- Jens Peter Maintz, Alexander Warenberg [cello]
Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20
Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20, composed in 1825, stands as one of the most significant chamber music works of the Romantic era. Remarkably, Mendelssohn was only 16 years old when he wrote this masterpiece, yet it displays a maturity and depth that would be impressive even for a seasoned composer. The octet is scored for a double-string quartet, comprising four violins, two violas, and two cellos.
One of the defining features of the Octet is its symphonic nature. While written for eight individual string players, Mendelssohn often treats the ensemble as if he were orchestrating a full symphony, achieving a rich and full-bodied sound. The textures are intricate, with thematic material expertly passed around and developed among the instruments.
The work exhibits Mendelssohn’s characteristic buoyancy and vivacity, combined with moments of profound introspection. Its melodies are both lyrical and memorable, showcasing the composer’s knack for crafting tunes that linger long in the listener’s mind. The Octet also demonstrates Mendelssohn’s genius in counterpoint and his ability to weave multiple melodic lines together in a harmonious tapestry.
A significant aspect of the Octet is its sense of cohesion. While each movement has its distinct character, there’s a consistent thread of inspiration that runs through the entire piece, creating a unified and satisfying listening experience. This work, in its brilliance and originality, set a new standard for chamber music and cemented Mendelssohn’s reputation as a prodigious talent, even at such a young age.
1. Allegro moderato ma con fuoco
The first movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20, is marked “Allegro moderato ma con fuoco,” which translates to “moderately fast but with fire.” This directive captures the essence of the movement, which is characterized by its vivacity and exuberance, combined with moments of fiery passion.
The movement begins with a bright and sprightly theme introduced by the first violin, which is then taken up and developed by the other instruments. This theme, with its ascending contour and rhythmic vitality, sets the energetic tone for the movement. What’s particularly striking is how Mendelssohn expertly weaves together the voices of the eight instruments, creating textures that are intricate yet transparent. The counterpoint is masterfully crafted, with multiple lines interacting in a harmonious and often playful dialogue.
As the movement unfolds, a secondary, more lyrical theme emerges, offering a contrast to the initial brightness. This theme is characterized by its singing quality and provides a moment of introspection amidst the movement’s general vivacity.
Mendelssohn’s genius in this movement lies in his ability to maintain momentum and interest throughout. He continuously varies the thematic material, ensuring that the listener’s attention is always captivated. There’s also a sense of joy and youthfulness that permeates the movement, likely a reflection of Mendelssohn’s own youthful exuberance at the time of composition.
The development section showcases Mendelssohn’s prowess in taking the initial themes and exploring them in new and unexpected ways. Tensions rise and fall as themes are dissected, transformed, and reintroduced, leading to a recapitulation where the initial themes return, providing a sense of familiarity and resolution.
The second movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet, Op. 20, stands in contrast to the lively and buoyant nature of the first. It is marked “Andante,” indicating a more moderate tempo and reflective mood.
This movement is deeply lyrical and showcases Mendelssohn’s innate ability to craft melodies of profound beauty and expressiveness. The opening theme is serene and song-like, evoking a sense of calm and introspection. It’s introduced by the first violin and is soon taken up and elaborated upon by the other instruments, creating a tapestry of sound that is both rich and transparent.
One of the movement’s defining features is its use of counterpoint. While the primary theme is undeniably romantic in character, Mendelssohn weaves in contrapuntal lines reminiscent of the Baroque era, particularly drawing influence from Bach, a composer he greatly admired. This combination of romantic lyricism with intricate counterpoint gives the movement a unique character – it’s at once forward-looking in its romantic sensibilities and yet deeply rooted in musical traditions of the past.
Throughout the movement, Mendelssohn employs a call-and-response technique, with one group of instruments introducing a motif and the other group echoing or elaborating upon it. This interaction creates a sense of dialogue, a musical conversation that adds depth and interest to the overall texture.
There’s an undertone of melancholy in this Andante, a bittersweet quality that pervades the melodies and harmonies. While it doesn’t possess the overt energy of the first movement, its emotional depth and the sheer beauty of its themes make it a central and poignant moment in the Octet. The movement concludes in a peaceful manner, with the initial theme making a final, subdued appearance, leaving listeners in a contemplative state.
3. Scherzo: Allegro leggierissimo
The third movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet, Op. 20, is marked “Scherzo: Allegro leggierissimo,” which translates to a very light and brisk pace. This movement is one of Mendelssohn’s most celebrated scherzos and is emblematic of his gift for creating elfin, fairy-like music that exudes a sense of wonder and magic.
From the outset, the Scherzo presents a fleet-footed, darting theme that is characterized by its playful rhythms and delicate articulations. The music seems to dance and flit about, reminiscent of the magical realm of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, another of Mendelssohn’s famed compositions. The rapid staccato notes, coupled with the light texture, give the movement a gossamer quality as if one were listening to the mischief of woodland sprites.
Throughout the movement, the theme is passed between the instruments, each taking its turn to lead the dance. The interplay is lively and dynamic, with Mendelssohn crafting moments of shimmering beauty as the instruments weave in and out of each other’s paths.
The central section of the Scherzo introduces a contrasting theme, which, while still maintaining the movement’s overall lightness, is slightly more grounded and lyrical. This section serves as a brief respite before the return of the initial darting theme.
One of the most notable features of this movement is Mendelssohn’s use of the “spiccato” bowing technique, where the bow bounces lightly on the strings to produce a series of short, controlled, and articulated notes. This technique enhances the movement’s airy and effervescent character.
The Scherzo concludes as briskly as it began, with a whirlwind of notes that eventually dissipate, leaving listeners enchanted by its fleeting and magical charm. This movement, in its brevity and brilliance, showcases Mendelssohn’s unparalleled ability to craft music that transports listeners to a fantastical realm.
The finale of Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet serves as the culminating finale, marked “Presto,” which indicates a fast and lively tempo. This movement combines the energetic vigor of the first movement with the intricacy and magic of the third, resulting in a thrilling conclusion to the entire piece.
The movement starts off assertively, with a propulsive theme that immediately grabs the listener’s attention. This theme is characterized by its rhythmic drive and forward momentum, and Mendelssohn uses it as a foundation upon which the rest of the movement is built. There’s a sense of urgency and excitement in the way the theme is developed and passed among the instruments.
As the movement progresses, Mendelssohn introduces a series of contrasting sections. One of the standout moments is a fugue-like passage, a nod to the Baroque technique of introducing a theme in one voice and then imitating it in successive voices. This contrapuntal section highlights Mendelssohn’s deep respect for and inspiration from composers like Bach and Handel, and it adds a layer of depth and complexity to the movement.
Throughout the finale, there’s a palpable sense of joy and celebration. Mendelssohn employs a wide range of dynamics and textures, from moments of delicate intimacy to grand, sweeping gestures that utilize the full force of the ensemble. The interplay between the instruments is dynamic and fluid, with themes bouncing back and forth, showcasing the composer’s masterful handling of the octet format.
The movement builds in intensity as it approaches its conclusion. The main themes are revisited and interwoven, leading to a climactic and exhilarating coda. This final section is marked by its rapid passages and virtuosic displays from all the instruments, culminating in a triumphant and resounding finish.
- Octet (Mendelssohn) on Wikipedia