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ClassicsOnline Home » MENDELSSOHN: String Quartets Nos. 2 and 5 / Scherzo Op. 81, No. 2
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 - 1847)
String Quartets Vol. 3
"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 A Minor, Opus 13 was written between July and October 1827, the year of Beethoven's death. Mendelssohn was one of the few composers who devoted careful attention to the late Beethoven quartets, and who - by adapting to his own purposes thematic material, specific constructive principles and the combination of different compositional techniques -made creative capital out of his intensive study of them.
The Quartet in A Minor is a cyclical work. The cycle is established by the motif of the introduction. Mendelssohn uses his own song Ist es wahr? (Is it true?) to frame the work. The late Wilhelm Altmann stated that it was customary in Germany to sing the entire song before playing the quartet in private company. It is interesting to note that this motif of Mendelssohn's song is reminiscent of Beethoven's "Les Adieux" Sonata, Opus 81. Musicologists have found other clear indications of the master's powerful influences on Mendelssohn's quartet. Notably one hears echoes of the second movement of the Opus 95 Quartet, the Cavatina of his Opus 130, and the unbridled passion of Opus 132. The great German musicologist Eric Werner has described the nature of the work, with its opening statement of the motto, followed by a movement of passionate vigour. Here counterpoint is used from the very beginning, but without any trace of the merely academic. Werner goes on to describe the complex structure of the second movement, in which the influence of Beethoven is apparent, notably in the first subject and the later fugue, drawing attention to the dramatic climax, where the recitative of the first violin leads to the re-appearance of the first theme. The Intermezzo is coupled with a rapid Trio that Werner describes as elfin-like in mood, while the movement ends in what he describes as an arabesque-like coda. The influence of Beethoven is again apparent in the final Presto, with its stormy recitative over tremolo accompaniment, leading back to the opening motto Ist es wahr? and a relatively modest conclusion.
The third quartet of Opus 44 is the richest in content of all the quartets bearing this opus number. The actual chronology of composition is 2-3-1. The quartet was completed on 6th February 1838. Wilhelm Altmann praised in particular the power and energy of the opening theme of the first movement of the Quartet in E flat major, an energy modified by the increasingly mysterious subsidiary subject, with its later curious accompaniment figure, although the passion of the first theme eventually affects the mood of the second. The Scherzo is followed by a cheerful fugal subject, while Altmann perceives in the Adagio non troppo the link with the slow movement of Beethoven's Opus 74. The last movement opens with furious impetus. A dance-theme and another full melody are contrasted, with the melody of the coda entrusted to second violin and viola, while the first violin indulges in some virtuoso display.
One reason for believing that Mendelssohn, had he lived longer, might have occupied himself with more chamber music is that we have part of yet another string quartet dating from the last months of his life. The miscellany published post humously as Opus 81 contains two pieces he wrote in 1847. The first is a Tema (Andante) con variazioni. The simple and expressive theme is followed by ingenious and extremely attractive variations. The second, is a Scherzo in A Minor, the last movement of this kind Mendelssohn was ever to write, and one of his best. It is a work of immense spark and wit. Its charm and magic lies in its rhythmic organization and lightness of texture. The pure poetry of this scherzo equals anything Mendelssohn had achieved in his younger days. It is just a pity that it was to be his last statement in this form.
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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MENDELSSOHN: String Quartets Nos. 2 and 5 / Scherz...