Felix Mendelssohn and his Octet for Strings

Posted on: November 30th, 2020 by Racine Symphony Orchestra No Comments

Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 20 (1825) – Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

  • Allegro moderato, ma con fuoco
  • Andante
  • Scherzo. Allegro leggierissimo
  • Presto

Felix Mendelssohn greets this life surrounded by culture, with wealthy parents who not only support the Berlin arts, but also bring artists home for dinners and concerts in their living room. Among others, young Felix hobnobbed with Rossini and Goethe on a regular basis. And, his own musical study includes piano, violin, and composition. Further, his parents arrange for his own compositions to be performed in public. Thus, he develops as a very precocious, talented, and worldly young man.  

Felix composes the Octet for Strings in E-flat Major when he is sixteen years young! He dedicates it to his friend and violin teacher, Eduard Rietz, upon his twenty-third birthday. And, it is thought that the premiere was likely in the Mendelssohn family home. It is interesting to note that such an octet for two string quartets was never created by Hadyn or Mozart or Beethoven or Schubert. Mendelssohn describes the piece as “my favorite of all my compositions.” “I had a most wonderful time in the writing of it.”

Both symphonic and intimate, the Octet begins with an Allegro moderato, ma confuoco filled with energy and momentum in which the first violin sings and soars; the second theme is a hushed, flowing melody in the fourth violin and first viola. A gentle, thoughtful Adagio, filled with emotional undercurrents, begins in the violas. Throughout this movement the composer explores motivic fragments using a range of colors, finally concluding in a pianissimo. Then comes a mysterious, tip-toeing Scherzo that will come to be a stand alone piece. Fanny, the composer’s sister, felt that her brother was inspired by a ghostly vision from Goethe’s Faust: “One feels…half inclined to snatch up a broomstick and follow the aerial procession. At the end the first violin takes flight, light as a feather, and all is blown away.”Later, Mendelssohn adds wind parts to this movement and substitutes it for the minuet in his First Symphony.  The final Presto bustles about in fugal style, beginning with a bit of humor as he places the solo line in the second cello’s lowest register. This movement includes an allusion to music from the Scherzo and concludes with exuberance. Mendelssohn leaves this advice for performers within the score: “This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character.”  

Mendelssohn scores his octet for four violins, two violas, and two cellos.

The Racine Symphony’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet can be found HERE.