Programme notes for Octet in E flat major

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

Mendelssohn – Octet in E flat major Op 20

Sixteen years old, and he composed this! That the young Felix was able to write this magical work at that tender age is miraculous, audacious and virtually unbelievable, but write it he did, and now we shall hear it as the finale to this year’s Festival. In an earlier note, I quoted Schumann’s opinion of him – the ‘…Mozart of the 19th Century’ – and the prodigious talent that both he and Mozart so singularly possessed is well demonstrated in this fine Octet. Only rarely do such spirits as his visit this mortal sphere, and they should for ever be treasured and celebrated: for surely, if we are not to debase the word, the young Felix truly was a ‘celebrity’ and a very fine and discerning choice by the Werthers for this year’s composer.

In the summer of 1825 (shortly before the composition of the Octet), the Mendelssohn family moved to into a new home in the centre of Berlin. Their dwelling soon became a major focus of Berlin intellectual and cultural life: influences such as Hegel were constantly present, and Felix dipped deep into the works of his friend Goethe, and those of Shakespeare. In October of the same year he wrote the Octet for the birthday of his close friend and violinist, Eduard Rietz, for whom it was given its premiere in one of the Sunday musicales in the Mendelssohn home.

And what a present it was! Arguably his first real mature work, it abounds in melody and infectious rhythm, and manages to combine a baroque polyphony with a structure that is decidedly classical. A precedent for the genre already existed, of course: Schubert’s Octet had been published in the previous year, and Spohr had just published the first of his four ‘double quartets’, in which each quartet had its own distinct musical identity. In the Mendelssohn, however, all eight instruments merge into a single identity, making for a very different texture, and opening up many more inventive possibilities. Mendelssohn was also very specific about what he wanted, writing ‘It is to be played in symphonic style by all the instruments; the pianos and fortes must be very precisely differentiated and be more strongly emphasised than usual.’

I Allegro moderato, ma con fuoco An opening, surging arpeggio figure opens the work in robust manner, immediately evoking the ‘symphonic’ instructions specified earlier: in fact, we seem to be more in the realms of a string orchestra than chamber music. Before long, a second idea is introduced, before the development section arrives, bursting with energy. A dramatically unexpected diminuendo leads to a moment of mercurial calm, and for a brief spell a magical Shakespearian potion dulls the senses. This in turn gives way, the spell is broken, and a return to the opening theme provides a thrilling close to an opening movement which lasts almost half the entire work.

II Andante The opening theme sways gently in a mood which has something almost mournful about it, and it is this studied intensity which characterises the remainder. But watch out, dear listener!

III Scherzo: allegro leggierissimo As this movement simply flies along, we are transported into another world, a world of faery magic once more, spun with filigree strands of never-pausing stacatto. These wisps of sound sometimes part to reveal a brief but deliciously happy melody. Though often thought of as the forerunner of the overture to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ , Fanny Mendelssohn claims it was inspired by the scene from Goethe’s Faust headed ‘Walpurgis Night’s Dream, or the Golden Wedding of Oberon and Titania.’ She even quoted the specific lines:

Streaks of cloud and veils of mist
Bright’ning o’er us hover.
Air stirs the brake, the rushes shake,
And all our pomp is over.

IV Presto The finale opens in the same dashing mood, seeming to grow out of the scherzo as the music builds fugally from low in the register. Now, away with musical technicality and terminology! Forget all about the ‘cyclical reappropriation of the scherzo’s theme’ and the ‘wondrous manner of its fusion ‘, etc! Simply close your eyes, listen and marvel! Enjoy it as did its composer, who wrote of the Octet ‘I had a lovely time writing it.’!