Mendelssohn live at Wilton’s

Posted on August 11th, 2012 by

Mendelssohn-Octet (live at Wilton Music Hall 2012)

Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Miahilo Trandafilovski, Midori Komachi, Aisha Orazbayeva, Morgan Goff, Diana Mathews, Val Wellbanks, Jess Hayes Recording courtesy of Colin Still (Optic Nerve)

Aisha, Morgan, Diana, Valerie, Jessica (Mendelssohn Octet)

Most musicians discover the Mendelssohn Octet when we are, or rather, were, around about the same age that he wrote it. Not surprisingly, it seems the most natural thing in the world, a piece of music which is pulled out to read as the hectic climax for a chamber music party, whispered about with excitement (who is going to play first-the machinations over this formed the substance of my first semi-public encounter with the piece), practised feverishly. It is only with age that the wonder begins to dawn on us. Now that I am well over double the age that Felix was when he wrote it, and 3 years older than he was when he died, I find myself looking at it feeling a little like Peter Schaffer’s Salieri. He said it better than I ever could:.


“I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes at an Absolute Beauty. …Somewhere in this city, stands a giggling child who can put on paper…casual notes which turn my most considered ones into lifeless scratches. Grazie,  Signore!”


If we can, lets forget that this work was written by a child, or a best, a teenager. The octet, was written in the same year that Beethoven wrote his second E flat major Quartet, the first of the so-called ‘late- quartets, and three years before Schubert’s Quintet. Yet it is not stretching a point to say that it, like they, broke totally new ground, without it, like them, our musical world would be incalculably poorer. But this was written by a boy. Mendelssohn, of course, was hardly the first child prodigy of the 19th century. That honour has to go to Rossini, who the young Mendelssohn rather unfortunately referred to as ‘Maestro Windbag’.  Two decades earlier, Rossini had written a series of chamber works which also showed new terrains for chamber musicians, a new capacity for joyful virtuosity, a gift he proferred Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Paganini; these of course were  his 6 string sonatas, quartets really, for two violins, cello and bass.


Mendelssohn and Rossini shared two things. One, of course, was unfathomable genius, manifested at the earliest age, and the other was privilege. Both of them were given the opportunity to write for professional ensembles as children; in Mendelssohn’s case, this led inexorably to the Octet.


Mendelssohn was very keen that this work should not be considered as traditional chamber music. The first published set of parts for this piece, which he supervised, bears this out. Chamber music was published with the sets of parts organised in order, so that the title page was only on the first violin part. This meant that any other important information was be confined to the back page of the part which made up the bottom of the pile, in this case, and no disrespect intended, the 2nd Cello part. On the back page of this part we find the following inscribed, in German and French-which I must paraphrase, as the two instructions do not say exactly the same thing:


“ This Octet mus be played, in all the parts, in the manner of a symphony; the Pianos and Fortes must be very exactly and clearly played, and emphases must be sharply defined, as is the manner of performing in such pieces”


Quite apart from the implied shot across the bows of gentle amateurs and chamber-music aficionados, this inscription revealed much about the origins of this work.


In 1807, Mendelssohn’s future composition teacher, the composer and theorist, Carl Friedrich Zelter re-established the Berlin Ripienschule. Every Friday 10 players, met  to rehearse what was then comparatively unknown baroque string music by Handel, Johann Sebastiand and Carl Philipp Emmanuel, Quantz and the Bendas, the great doyens of the onetime ‘Mannheim rocket’.


At the meetings of this society, at Zelter’s house, the young prodigy had the opportunity to hear the Concerti Grossi of Handel, the fabulous Hamburg-Sinfonien ­­ of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, the virtuoso string symphonies of the Bohemian classical composers, and most exceptionally of all, the Brandenburg Concertos of J S Bach. We know for sure that Mendelssohn was involved or at  in a performance of Brandenburg 5, because Zelter reported his delight that:


“In the score of a magnificent concerto by Sebastian Bach, the hawk eyes of my Felix, when he was ten years old, became aware of a succession of six pure fifths, which I perhaps never would have found…but the handwriting is Bach’s autograph, beautifully and clearly written.”


Even more excitingly, this lets us know that Mendelssohn, as early as 1819, was holding the manuscript of the Brandenburg Concerti, which Bach had sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. At this point, Mendelssohn was not composing, but working on harmony and counterpoint with Zelter. They had been arguing about the young musician’s use of parallel fifths, a contrapuntal faux pas and Mendelssohn had trounced his teacher by finding them in Papa Bach’s concerto.


I like to think that, in finding Bach’s mistake, Mendelssohn first caught a glimpse of where he could become a composer, that Bach’s error, if one might call it that, provided him with creative space, with colour, with room for personal creativity, a place to compose. It was just such ‘error’ which Mendelssohn found ways to ‘bury’ within the fabric of his music, often squirreling there its unique colour, whilst apparently not, ‘breaking the rules’. However, it is clear that on occasion, he could not resist. It does not take eagle ears to note that in the second bar of the Canon that Mendelssohn wrote for Hans Christian Andersen twenty years later, he includes just such an ‘ugly duckling’ of pure or parallel fifths,  carefully backing away from the considered ‘error’ before transforming/ correcting the phrase a few bars later. Perhaps the lure of being ‘bad’ was irresistible, after all, one of his counterpoint exercises for Zelter in 1819 earned the reproof:


“… Produced totally without thought”


By 1841, Zelter had been dead for 5 years, but perhaps the lure of blowing him the occasional musical raspberry was just too great.


But that is not the real reason for my excitement at the idea of a 10 year old boy holding the manuscript score of the Brandenburg Concerti. Most of this works are evidently designed to be performed with ‘one player per part’. Two of them, nos 3 and 6, explitly reference the earlier form of the viol consort. No 3, in G major, is scored for 3 violinst,  3 Violas, 3 celli, and Violone/Cbass, (with continuo), and no 6, in B Flat major, for two violas, two viole da Gamba, with cello and violone (Continuo). This paradigm is carried throughout all of the 6 concerti, all of which seem to simply demand the appropriate numbers of players for the parts demanded. In this respect, they were not ‘concerti grossi’ contrasting the orchestral mass against the intimacy of a trio sonata. Clearly, confronted with such works, any modern discinction between chamber music and orchestral music is moot. Looking at the available forces for Zelter’s Ripienschule it is clear that even with the maximum numbers of players, Mendelssohn would have heard these Baroque and early classical works played with close to ‘one player per part’. This might provide an explanation for the language of the astonishing cycle of 12 String Sinfonias, which Mendelssohn produced from 1821-4, of which we are going to play the slow movement of the 9th today. As you will hear, Mendelssohn divided his orchestra into 8 parts-four violins, two violas, cello and a bass line, which we are going to play on second cello for this afternoon. I have chosen this carefully, as it draws a straight line from Bach, through Zelter’s Ripienschule, and to the Octet. The divisi  that Mendelssohn has utilised here makes it very clear that he is expecting that this movement should be played by 8 musicians, using the Brandenburg concerto approach. This was a sinfonia  that Mendelssohn particularly liked; so much so that he made a copy of the score for his one time violin teacher, Eduard Rietz, the dedicatee of the Octet.


But the Bach link does not end there. As has been noted many times, all of the string symphonies betray Mendelssohn’s admiration of Bach’s fugal writing. That in itself is hardly news; it is harder to find a work that does betray his love of Bach and Handel. After all, the final of the Octet presents the And he shall reign for ever and ever (shorn of the Hallelujas) from Messiah. But his slow movement presents the most astonishing ‘reveal’. You will hear that it begins with four solo violins, in E major, play an melody consisting of a rising perfect 4th, a minor sixth falling, and a rising minor third, and a falling fifth. Invert this, and tweak the directions of the intervals, and you end up with a conflation of Contrapuncti 1-4 from Bach’s most mysterious and challenging chamber work, the unfinished Kunst de Fuge, which unlike the Brandenburg concerti, was published, albeit, two years after his death in 1750.


One can just imagine the boy composer’s colleagues and teacher’s smiles as this stunt is pulled off, before the two worlds, the romantic world of the violins (melodically and harmonically prefiguring the E minor/Major violin concerto) and that of the viol-consort is brought into jaw-dropping concord at the end of the movement. As Neil Heyde said to me yesterday; it is one thing for the Octet to be written by a 16 year old, but this, by a 13-14 year old; well it is just astonishing.n Just  Imagine Salieri’s reaction.


Capisco! I know my fate. Now for the first time I feel my emptiness as Adam felt his nakedness…”


So I would just like to suggest, for today, that Mendelssohn’s smashing of the limitations of ‘chamber music’ tearing down the wall between orchestral and chamber music, began with the introduction to Bach, which of course, more famously, would lead to his revivification of most of the Matthew Passsion as a twenty year old.


In 1818, Wolfgang von Goethe described his first impressions of Bach.


“I said to myself, it is as if the eternal harmony were conversing with itself, as it may have done in the bosom of God before the Creation of the World. So likewise did it move in my inmost soul, and it seemed as I neither possessed nor needed ears, nor any other sense – least of all, the eyes.”


In November 1821, the 12 year old Mendelssohn wrote his father from Weimar:

“Goethe is here! In a flash were at the bottom of the steps to Goether’s house. He was in the garden, and was just coming around a hedge; isn’t that odd, dear Father, just the way it happened when you met him? He is very friendly. But I don’t think any of his portraits look at all like him. We then inspected his interesting collection of fossils…say Hmm, Hmm, I am quite pleased; afterwards I walked around the garden whith him and Professor Zelter for another hald hour. Then we sat down to eat. One would think that he was 50 years old, not 73. Every morning I receive a kiss from the author of Faust and Wertherand every afternoon two kisses from Goether, friend and father. Fancy that! In that fternoon I played for after from over two hours, in part Bach, and in part I improvised. In the evening, they played Whist. Professor Zelter, who played at first, said to me: Whist mans that you should keep your mouth shut. Strong Language! In the evening, we all ate together, even Goethe, who usually never eats at night!”[vii]


Nine years later, he recorded playing Bach for Goethe again:


“…he  said that one could really see a procession of elegantly dressed people proceeding down a great staircase. I also played him the Inventions and much of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

It seems that I can’t read about Mendelssohn and Bach, without encountering Goethe at every turn, and I will return to his impact on the Octet later.


But now, a diversion. In 1840, the young Danish travel writer, playwright, novelist, and writer of Eventyrer, which I will not translate as Fairy Tales, H C Andersen, arrived in Leipzig. One of the most striking features about Andersen was his fascination with music; everywhere he went, he spread the news of flowering of Danish composition in the hands of Weyse, Emil Hartmann, and Niels Gade. One of the direct results of this was Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony and Fingals Cave, which bore more than a passing resemblances to Gade’s Echoes of Ossian. Eveywhere Andersen went, he first of all browbeat German musicians with stories of his beloved Danish composers, and he was especially delighted to find that Mendelssohn wanted to discuss his novel Kun en Spillemænd with him.


Mendelssohn wrote a rather puzzling c minor Canon a 2  which Andersen later pasted in his Billedbog, which you can find in the Kongelig Bibliothek in Copenhagen, alongside similar dedications from composers in including Spohr, Thalberg, Liszxt, Meyerbeer, Kalkbrenner,  the Schumanns, Ernst, Ole Bull, in between notes from Walter Scott, von Humboldt, and Dickens. Four years later, Andersen noted in his Diary:


“ [Leipzig] 6 Juli 1844. I was given a manuscript of Goethe by Madame Goethe, and had to write in 6 autograph albums. At 11 oclock we went to Mendelssohn’s house/ there David, the Kapellmeister in Leipzig, who had just arrived from London, and a third, performed a trio for us: Mendelssohn played more pieces and a Young Woman sang with taste and feeling. I recited:

Felix Mendelssohn Bartoldi.

In every church the organtones ring out.

A boy was named good fortune, as (Felicity)

“Ja  Felix!” as the Lord’s Angels sing out.

To him the master of all music’s sceptre is handed!”

Then we had an ice cream! … at the Thomaskirche , on the very organ that Bach had played, Mendelssohn played me one of Bach’s compositions and one of his own. It was a true river of sound!”