Felix Mendelssohn A Major String Quintet Op 18
Wilton’s Music Hall
Sunday December 20th 6 pm
On Sunday, the we will be returning to the wonder of Felix Mendelssohn’s early chamber music. The centrepiece of the concert will be his favourite string chamber work, the A Major Quintet op 18. This work was written in 1826, hard on the heels success of the extraordinary Octet. Not surprisingly, it shares many qualities with that masterpiece. Originally this quintet did not have a slow movement. However, on the occasion of Mendelssohn’s return to Paris in 1832, events forced a change.
Mendelssohn was visiting the French capital to give concerts at the chamber music society led by the great virtuoso Pierre Baillot. Felix Mendelssohn first met Baillot in 1816, he was only nine years old. He described Baillot’s circle as “a very musical society,” made up of “very attentive women and the greatest amateurs amongst gentlemen.”
Mendelssohn came to know Baillot through his lessons with the pianist Maria Bigôt de Morogues (1786-1820), whose husband had been the Count Rasoumovsky’s librarian. Bigôt “had performed chamber music with Pierre Baillot”, so lessons were organised for the young virtuoso with the great violinist.
Baillot’s collaborators were divided into two camps – the Parisian-based soloists and orchestral players who worked with him over decades and visiting virtuosi– soloists and composers, including Chopin and Mendelssohn, who would come to perform their own and other composers’ music, and to hear their music being played by Baillot’s ensemble.
The Baron de Trémont compared Baillot and Chopin:
“Baillot was one of the greatest violinists who ever lived, as Chopin is one of the greatest pianists; they resemble each other in the fact that their wonderful talent cannot be appreciated in its full extent except by the chosen few among the connoisseurs.”
On an earlier visit, Mendelssohn was particularly touched by the brilliance of Baillot’s performance of his Quartet Op 13, dedicated to his one-time violin teacher, particularly as the players had only received the parts for this work a few days earlier. This work includes a sly nod to Baillot – the first violin outburst which begins the last movement is base on the notes B flat-A, the only notes that can be extracted from Baillot’s surname.
Henriette Mendelssohn later noted:
“You know Baillot’s sensitive face…this expression remained as long as he spoke of Fanny and Felix, and we spoke of no one else.”
It is difficult not to be tempted by the idea that the Parisian ideal of ‘socialised’ chamber music, found its apogee in Mendelssohn’s early masterpieces, his Octet and the Quintet. Perhaps it was the impact of Baillot’s chamber music evenings that led Mendelssohn to turn from the orchestre–manqué style of his string symphonies to a new opulence of chamber writing.
On the 7th April 1832, the Journal general d’annonces previewed co ncert, due to take place at the Salle Saint-Jean at l’Hôtel de Ville de Paris. The guest artist on the programme was the young Mendelssohn, playing with Pierre Baillot’s chamber group. The announced programme included a Boccherini String Quintet, a Haydn Quartet, the C minor Sonata Op 30 no 2 of Beethoven, Mozart’s 20th Piano Concerto in D minor, and incredibly, Beethoven’s violin concerto. The concert never happened; Baillot wrote on his programme: “N’a pas lieu à cause de Choléra.” Mendelssohn was convinced thad he had caught it: “I have to stay in bed, have my belly massaged by an old crone, cover myself up with masses of bedclothes, sweat a lot, eat nothing, endure lots of visits and lots of sympathy, swallow enormous pills, get really bored…” In all liklihood, he had a bad case of Colic, but at the first opportunity he left. On the 19th April, Mendelssohn left for London. He never returned to Paris.
Ealier in the spring, Baillot’s musicians informally read through Mendelssohn’s A Major Quintet. They were complimentary, but noted an omission. The original version of the work did not have a true slow movement, but rather a stately ‘minuet and trio’. Mendelssohn took the advice seriously, but events had overtaken him.
He was informed that his great early collaborator Eduard Rietz had died. The violinist Rietz was the dedicatee of his Octet, the 1st Violin Concerto and of the tremendous violin/piano concertante, Adieu a Berlin Op 4. All of these pieces can be read as portraits of his virtuosic and lyrical playing.
Mendelssohn was grief-stricken at the death. Ferdinand Hiller remembered:
“At first he could not find words to tell me…and he could hardly keep control of himself.”
He wrote an in memoriam Adagio for the Quintet. In some ways this addition is a dramatic departure from the rest of the piece, but the movement is a fitting memorial to their friendship and work together.
Mendelssohn wrote to his family:
“The knowledge that there was a man like him in the world-a man with whom I could talk without constraint, who loved me and whose aspirations and aims were the same as mine-that is now gone for ever. It is the cruellest blow I have yet suffered.”
Sources; la Musique en France…(1830 – 1870), Harmoniques/Flammarion, Paris 1991, On Wings of Song, Wilfred Blunt, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1974, The Baron de Trémont: Souvenirs of Beethoven and other contemporaries, J.-G.Prodhomme and Thodore Baker, in: The Music Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3, (Jul., 1920), The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn,Peter Jameson, Taylor, Cambridge University Press