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Programme notes for String Quartet No 2 in A minor

These notes are reproduced from the original programme notes for the Whittington International Chamber Music Festival 2015 and are copyright Christopher Symons.

Mendelssohn: String Quartet No 2 in A minor Op 13 (‘Ist es wahr?)

Mendelssohn was not alone in feeling dwarfed by his older contemporary, Beethoven: the maestro was, after all, the towering colossus in Vienna, worshipped and revered. Such homage, however, was not universal. With the music of Rossini now all the rage, and fashion ever fickle, some contemporaries were positively harsh in their judgements, including Weber and Spohr – composers who wielded considerable influence on their fellow composers.

It is difficult to believe, but they regarded the (sublime) ‘late quartets’ of Beethoven as the ravings of a cranky, deaf old man, sick in body and spirit. Unlike them, Mendelssohn’s artistic and musical understanding was far more sensitive: he allowed himself to feed on the inspiration of the old master, rather than criticise, finding those late quartets to be marvels, spiritually, intellectually and technically: he studied them closely, and adapted for his own use some of Beethoven’s techniques – the integrated movements, fugal textures, new tonal effects and harmonies that were more adventurous.

Long was the shadow cast by Beethoven, or, rather, far-reaching his illuminating rays. During the writing of this Op 13 quartet, then, Felix was deeply in thrall to Beethoven’s Op 132, itself in A minor. There are obvious links, including the fugal sections in the second movement (also common in Beethoven) and the violin solo in the last movement (echoing something similar in Op 132 final movement).

As an example of the earlier-mentioned ‘integrated movements’ technique, we need to regard the quartet’s subtitle ‘Ist es wahr/’ (Is it true?). The title comes from a poem by a friend of Mendelssohn, Johann Droyson, which he set to music and published as Op 9. The opening three notes of the song becomes a motto/motif which reappears in many guises throughout the quartet, bringing a sense of integration and wholeness.

One final link, too: it was composed in the autumn of 1827, the year of Beethoven’s death. Whilst we might perhaps think that some of the deeply heart-rending pathos of the mature Beethoven is lacking here, we should remember that the young Felix was only 18 when he wrote it. It is a work which quite brilliantly blends a classical and yet romantic feel, and forms a precocious but mature response to the legacy left behind by Beethoven just a few months earlier. For Felix, the challenge did not finish with just the Beethoven Op132 (just published): Schubert too had just revealed his own wonderful A minor quartet (D408, the ‘Rosamunde’).

A great deal, therefore, to live up to! There are the usual four movements.

I Adagio – allegro vivace The slow A major introduction soon gives way to the minor key, the music swift, intense and volatile, with rapid changes of direction, register and dynamics.

II Adagio non lento Now in F major, the movement is in ‘ternary’ form (ABA), whose two outer ‘framing’ sections (A) seem to mix a kind of Beethovian ‘hymnic’ style with a cantabile songfulness. The taut and intense inner section (B) – a great wave of music within a fugal frame – is much more polyphonic, the weaving, individual melodic lines of each instrument fusing into harmony.

III Intermezzo: allegretto con moto – allegro di molto Replacing the more normal scherzo, the intermezzo here has two contrasting elements: the allegretto (a sort of pointed, melancholic march with pizzicato accompaniment) and the allego di molto, an A major skittsh ‘fairy scherzo’ of great buoyancy and brio. These two themes eventually come together in a poetically delicate coda.

IV Presto The finale grows out of a powerful orchestral tremolando effect, underpinning the solo violin’s recitative. There are later brief references to earlier themes, two mini-fugues and a final return to the violin recitative before the recapitulation. To close, there is a recall of the first movement’s opening A major section. We have turned full circle.