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ClassicsOnline Home » MENDELSSOHN: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 4 / Quartet in E-Flat Major
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 - 1847)
String Quartets Vol. 2
"Felix" (Latin for "the happy one") was a well-chosen name for Mendelssohn, for the Goddess of Fortune gave him her choicest gifts, a diadem of genius for his curly head, inherited wealth from his father, a winning charm of manner and a graceful upright physique. The frustrations, maladjustments, and conflicts of most great composers make the life of Felix Mendelssohn as refreshing as sunshine. Born in Hamburg on 3rd February 1809, Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was the grandson of the Jewish pragmatic philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn - known as the "German Plato" - and son of the banker, Abraham Mendelssohn. His mother Lea Salomon-Bartholdy was his first piano teacher. He studied with Ludwig Berger (piano), Carl Friedrich Zelter (theory), and Wilhelm Hennig (violin). At nine he played the piano part of a trio by Wolff in public; at ten he sang alto in the Singakademie; at eleven he was introduced to Goethe who spoke the highest praises of his piano-playing and insisted that the wunderkind stay with him in Baden for two weeks. At their first meeting the poet requested he playa Bach fugue, and though he forgot a part of the composition, he was able to extemporize the missing portion, weaving contrapuntal lines into a heavy brocaded baroque fabric that pleased all who were present for the performance. Shortly after Beethoven's Ninth Symphony came out, Mendelssohn, then fifteen could play it all on the piano without a score. At seventeen he wrote an overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Light, aerial fairy music was his unsurpassed speciality.
Between 1827 and 1835, Mendelssohn's activity took him from city to city on the Continent and in England. His popularity increased to a point where he was deluged with invitations to the finest homes. In 1829 he conducted the first performance, after Bach's death, of the great St. Matthew Passion. The next several years saw the production of many important works, among which were the first volume of the Songs Without Words, the Hebrides Overture, the Italian and Reformation symphonies and the G minor Piano Concerto. In 1835, Mendelssohn became the conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, and eight years after that he helped to found the Leipzig Conservatory.
When Mendelssohn stopped after a gruelling concert schedule in England for a day of rest in Frankfurt am Main on 8th May 1847 he was brought word of his sister Fanny's untimely death. She had been rehearsing with a chamber group for a performance in the family home when she suddenly lost consciousness and died a few hours later. This was more than Mendelssohn could bear. He himself fell to the ground unconscious, a blood vessel in his head ruptured mirroring the phantom hemorrhage of his beloved Fanny, sharer of his hopes, and emotional double of his inner self. There seemed no joy left in the world for Mendelssohn from that point on. Mendelssohn a young man of thirty-eight died of a paralytic stroke on 4th November 1847. He was put to rest in the family vault in Berlin.
The String Quartet in E flat, Opus 12 was composed by Mendelssohn in 1829 when he was not yet twenty-one and published in November of 1830. Written after Opus 13 but published two years earlier, it was patterned after Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet, Opus 74. Composed in the same key, its adagio introduction recalls strikingly Beethoven's adagio introduction in the two motifs stated in the first four measures, as well as in some harmonic turns. The first movement is a broad, passionate, and melodically beautiful section. The second movement (the Canzonetta), like the Noctume from the Borodin Quartet in D Major, is often played as a separate piece. Its chief charm lies in its pizzicato and staccato effects and, of course, the elfin-like humour of the closing measures. The third movement, an Andante espressivo, suggests the nobility of a hymn of thanksgiving. The Andante leads directly into the Finale which flows into a recapitulation that ends in a triumphant song. This eventually passes to the main theme of the first movement, which then, as in its first appearance, softly dies away.
Mendelssohn admired and studied Beethoven's music. There are many examples of Beethoven's influences in the symphonies, piano music, songs and chamber music. Mendelssohn studied the older master's quartets before venturing to compose a quartet himself and as a result Beethoven's quartets have found an echo in Mendelssohn's creations in this form. The three quartets of Opus 44 were composed between 1837 and 1838. The second of these, in E minor, is considered by many musicologists as his finest essay for string quartet. The first movement contains a remarkable variety of material and texture, all welded together with cunning craftsmanship and exhilarating effect. In the scherzo Mendelssohn produces yet another example of his inexhaustible invention in devising movements of this type. The Andante is a song without words, reminding us of Schubert's A minor Quartet. The concluding Presto agitato brings into play Mendelssohn's full powers of construction and expression.
The earliest of the three string quartets Mendelssohn wrote in the key of E flat is dated 25th March 1823. He was fourteen at the time. The work remained unpublished until 1879, when the publishing firm of Erler in Leipzig issued it. This quartet was never assigned a posthumous opus number and has to this date remained almost unknown and unplayed. Although the work has a charm all its own, it is something of a "student exercise" by comparison with Mendelssohn's other quartets and later compositions. The treatment of the instruments is tentative and restricted. The first violin does not venture further than the safe third position. The work as a whole is conservative and competently written with very few shifts in modulations or tonic transitions. The first movement follows the sonata form without any significant alterations. The second movement, Adagio non troppo, is something between the ternary A-B-A form and binary form with development. Although we sense a certain bit of musical indecision in matters of form and the treatment of motives, the movement as a whole is charming. The Minuetto with its restricted melody and regular rhythmic periods remains firmly in the bounds of convention for this form. We are here reminded of Haydn, Albrechtsberger and even early Beethoven. The Finale is an unidiomatic exercise in fugue, doubtlessly a product of rigorous study of counterpoint. A more elaborate and mature example of a double fugue appeared again in E flat, this time with a better sense of string technique in Opus 81.
The Aurora String Quartet
The New York Times has praised the Aurora String Quartet as "among the Pacific elite" of chamber ensembles in the West. All four players are long time members of the San Francisco Symphony. In 1983 Edo De Waart asked the quartet to perform in the Symphony's subscription series as soloists, and they appeared as part of the Symphony's Beethoven Festival in both 1990 and 1992. The Aurora String Quartet is currently an ensemble-in-residence for San Francisco's Old First Church Concert Series, and performs regularly throughout the Bay Area. In 1991, they performed at the Mozart Festival in Tahiti. Critics have applauded the Aurora String Quartet for its incisive, resonant, lyrical style and rhythmic intensity. The quartet has mastered equally the repertoire of the Classical eighteenth and Romantic nineteenth centuries. The ensemble also musically commands the modern repertoire and has a vital interest in performances of new twentieth century works. The Aurora String Quartet has given West Coast premieres of works by Benjamin Lees, George Tsontakis, Robert Helps, and David Macbride, and has performed works by John Harbison, Charles Wuorinen, George Perle, Henri Dutilleux, Andrew Imbrie, and Sir Michael Tippett. In 1989, Benjamin Lees wrote his String Quartet No.4 for the Aurora String Quartet. During the 1992-93 season they gave the world premiere of a commissioned work by David Macbride and the West Coast première of Steven Jaffe's String Quartet No.1.
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