This week’s music, in continuation of our series on the octet, is Felix Mendelssohn’s octet for four violins, two violas, and cellos.
While we commonly think of the Octet as the pinnacle of the chamber music repertoire, Mendelssohn (who composed it at the ripe old age of 16) did not view it as a chamber composition. In fact, he viewed it as a condensed symphony. This is reflected in both the structure of the piece and the inscription that Mendelssohn placed at the beginning of the manuscript: The Octet must be played in the style of a symphony in all parts; the pianos and fortes must be precisely differentiated and be more sharply accentuated than is ordinarily done in pieces of this type. These words clearly place the Octet within a symphonic framework, which is helpful when thinking about how to listen to it.
For instance, the structure of the Octet unfolds like a symphony. You will hear a brilliant first movement allegro leading to a lush andante. The third movement, a scherzo, frolics through chamber-music-like textures before the presto finale explodes into a fully symphonic finale. You’ll also hear Mendelssohn utilizing the full range of expressive qualities available to this combination of instruments, much like a symphony might do. You can also sense Mendelssohn’s movement away from the Classical traditions of his predecessors (Mozart, Haydn, etc.) an into the Romantic style of his contemporaries. This can be heard in the dreamy, enchanted quality in the second movement and the frenetic restlessness of the third movement (of which he wrote that it “is to be played staccato and pianissimo… the trills passing away with the quickness of lightning”).
I had the amazing opportunity of performing Mendelssohn’s Octet at the Lincoln Center in New York City while studying at the Foulger Institute, a summer music performance school, in the summer of 2012. The performance took place in the penthouse of the Lincoln Center, which is encased with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that provide a panoramic view of the entire city. I had the good fortune of having been assigned to play the virtuosic first violin part, and I have magical memories of soaring through the finale of Mendelssohn’s octet while, thousands of feet below us, the city sparkled in the night. It turned out to be one of those performances where the connection with the audience is electric. I’ve never understood why such performances occur; they just do.