Felix Mendelssohn (1809–47), was a German composer, pianist, organist and conductor of the early Romantic period. Mendelssohn’s compositions include symphonies, concertos, piano music, organ music and chamber music. His best-known works include the overture and incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream
, the Italian Symphony
, the Scottish Symphony
, the oratorio St. Paul
, the oratorio Elijah
, the overture The Hebrides
, the mature Violin Concerto and the String Octet. The melody for the Christmas carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is also his. Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words
are his most famous solo piano compositions.
Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20, was composed in the autumn of 1825 and completed on October 15, when the composer was 16. He wrote the octet as a birthday gift for his friend and violin teacher Eduard Ritz; it was slightly revised in 1832 before the first public performance on January 30, 1836 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Rietz had been the concertmaster of the Berlin Court Orchestra in 1819, and that was the position he held when Mendelssohn wrote for him his rarely played D minor Violin Concerto (not to be confused with the later, more famous E minor Concerto).
The work comprises four movements:
- Allegro moderato ma con fuoco (E-flat major)
- Andante (C minor)
- Scherzo: Allegro leggierissimo (G minor)
- Presto (E-flat major)
A typical performance of the work lasts around thirty minutes, with the first movement usually comprising roughly half of this.
The scherzo, later scored for orchestra as a replacement for the minuet in the composer’s First Symphony at its premiere, is believed to have been inspired by a section of Goethe’s Faust entitled “Walpurgis Night’s Dream”.
“Floating cloud and trailing mist,
O’er us brightening hover:
The rushes shake, winds stir the brake:
Soon all their pomp is over.”
Felix’s sister Fanny wrote of this movement, “One feels so near the world of spirits, carried away in the air, half inclined to snatch up a broomstick and follow the aerial procession. At the end the first violin takes a flight with feather-like lightness, and—all has vanished.” Fragments of this movement recur in the finale, as a precursor to the “cyclic” technique employed by later 19th-century composers. The entire work is also notable for its extended use of counterpoint, with the finale, in particular, beginning with an eight-part fugato. In this section, Mendelssohn quotes the melody of “And he shall reign forever and ever” from the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s Messiah.
The original score is for a double string quartet with four violins and pairs of violas and cellos. Mendelssohn instructed in the public score, “This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character.”