While the genre of the string quartet -- consisting of two violins, one viola and one 'cello -- developed slowly over the second half of the eighteenth century, it had, by the turn of the nineteenth century, achieved such a wide popularity as to be regarded as the vehicle par excellence of both chamber music and "modern" music of the era.
The string quartet's repertoire was then still rather limited, however, despite the contributions of dozens of composers to satisfy audiences' demands for works in this new medium. The unusual for the time instrumentation of Mendelssohn's Octet , scored for four violins, two violas and two cellos -- in essence, a double string quartet -- is therefore as unexpected as it is brilliantly innovative. While it has been assumed that the Octet 's novel instrumentation may have been inspired by a nearly contemporary work, the Double Quartet in D minor, op.
Spohr himself compared his own Double Quartet to "two choirs," and also remarked that Mendelssohn's approach to scoring the Octet was a more "collaborative" effort for all eight instruments used in the work. Unlike Spohr's work, Mendelssohn explores the full range of expressive and textural resources available to this particular combination of instruments, a perspective that is larger in scope -- more "symphonic" in conception -- than that usually encountered for the smaller scale of chamber music.
More closely aligned with the expressive style of emerging musical Romanticism than with the established Classicism of the Berlin Singakademie and to the teachings of his musical mentor, Carl Friedrich Zelter, the sixteen-year old Mendelssohn's creative voice had attained a level of maturity and invention that exceeded that of any prodigy before him, including Mozart.
The most astonishing fact about the composition of the Octet is not that it was written by someone of such a young age, but that such a personal and mature musical language is so evident throughout the work -- no small achievement for a composer of any age. While the work's light, vivacious mood and the organic development of its musical content would seem to indicate that the work was composed in a spontaneous burst of creativity, we do know that the work underwent significant changes before, and even after, its initial publication in , involving painstaking work on the composer's part.
It is therefore quite amazing that the work appears to have lost none of its vigor in the process. This process of revising his works became a lifelong obsession for Mendelssohn, much to the frustration of his publishers! Mendelssohn began the composition of the Octet , the first indisputable masterpiece of his artistic maturity, in the autumn of The work was completed on October 15, , two days before the composer presented the autograph score as a birthday present to his violin teacher, Eduard Rietz.
Rietz returned his student's compliment by copying out instrumental parts by hand which were used in the work's first performance. From contemporary accounts of those in attendance at that performance, the Octet apparently delighted and amazed its audience, a reaction that this work has been evoking ever since. As mentioned above, Mendelssohn's personal aesthetic conformed ideally to the musical tastes of the era, which were moving from a "Classical" style that of Mozart, Haydn, etc.
The composer did, however, introduce a particular element into the musical language of his time, the evocation of an enchanted, ethereal world of fairies and other benevolent spirits, the inspiration for which likely derived from his reading of the works of William Shakespeare, as well as of German poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe , with whom Mendelssohn was personally acquainted.
A verse from the first part of Goethe's lyric poem Faust , in fact, is alleged to have inspired the Scherzo movement from the Octet:. The composer's sister Fanny wrote that Mendelssohn once revealed his vision of the Scherzo movement to her: The holograph manuscript score of the Octet is undoubtedly the most significant treasure within the Library of Congress's holdings of material related to Mendelssohn.
Previously owned by the music publishing firm Musikbibliothek Peters to which its original owner, Rietz, entrusted it , it was only upon its purchase by the Library in , with funds generously provided by philanthropist Gertrude Clarke Whittall, that the score was first made accessible for public examination. The manuscript, representing Mendelssohn's initial concept of the work, contains a number of significant markings and musical content that were subsequently excised from the work's first publication in Considering the composer's convention of revising his works at least once, if not multiple times, and his tendency to destroy early drafts or versions of them, the original manuscript of the Octet presents the researcher with a unique insight into the creative process of the young genius.
Particularly noteworthy are the manuscript's front flyleaf, which bears Rietz's signature, and the score's first page, on the upper right corner of which, in Mendelssohn's hand, are the letters "L. Before his premature death at age thirty-eight, Felix Mendelssohn was to compose five symphonies, numerous other orchestral, stage and chamber works, and literally hundreds of vocal works ranging from solo song to large scale choral works such as the popular oratorio Elijah of , based on the Biblical account of the prophet's life.
The Octet , however, holds a unique place among Mendelssohn's works as one of the first major successes for its composer. From the almost minimalist unison textures of the work's Scherzo, to the eight-part fugato of its Finale, Mendelssohn created a masterwork which German composer and violinist Louis Spohr praised as "quite another kind of art. While the palace itself was one of the most splendid in Austria, and was dubbed the "Hungarian Versailles",  it was built over a large swamp; it was humid throughout the year, with a "vexatious, penetrating north wind"  from which Haydn and the other musicians in the court suffered.
Moreover, it was far from Vienna, and the musicians Haydn, as Kapellmeister, excepted had to leave their wives and families behind for many months. Consequently, there was much discontent among the musicians, and Haydn, like the others, suffered from bouts of depression and illness. This atmosphere found its expression in the opus 20 quartets. In particular, the fifth quartet is in the unusual key of F minor, "a key that predisposes even Haydn to sombre thoughts," writes Cobbett.
It was a time of ferment: Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau expounded a philosophy of human freedom and a return to nature. Poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller espoused the new Sturm und Drang movement, that "exalted nature, feeling, and human individualism and sought to overthrow the Enlightenment cult of Rationalism". Analysts trace specific musical choices in the opus 20 quartets to these new ideas. For example, the minuet movement of the D major quartet number 4 is replaced by a frenetic gypsy air titled "alla zingarese", full of offbeat rhythms.
Haydn showed himself in complete sympathy with this tendency," writes Geiringer. Counterpoint , the densely complex style of the Baroque , had fallen out of favor with the galante composers. The most commonly used Urtext edition is by Eulenburg , published in the s. When Haydn published his opus 33 quartets , ten years after the opus 20, he wrote that they were composed in "an entirely new and particular manner".
In this set of quartets, Haydn defined the nature of the string quartet — the special interplay of instruments that Goethe called "four rational people conversing". Prior to opus 20, the first violin, or, sometimes, the two violins, dominated the quartet. The melody was carried by the leader, with the lower voices viola and cello accompanying. In opus 20, Haydn gives each instrument, and particularly the cello, its own voice.
String Quartets, Op. 20 (Haydn) - Wikipedia
An outstanding example of this is the second quartet in C major. The quartet opens with a cello solo, accompanied by the viola and second violin. This was virtually unheard of in Haydn's time. Another example is in the slow movement of the fourth quartet, in D major. This movement is a set of variations , written in D minor; the first variation is a duet between viola and second violin, and the third variation is a solo for cello. With the opus 20 quartets, Haydn moved forward the development of the sonata form. A movement written in sonata form has an exposition , where the themes and motifs of the movement are presented; a development section, where these themes are transformed; and a recapitulation , where the themes are restated.
Traditionally, the restatement closely matched the original exposition. But Haydn, in opus 20, uses the restatement to further develop the material of the movement. For example, in the F minor quartet, Haydn embellishes the original theme, and rearranges the original material, adding to the musical tension as the movement moves to the coda. In the G minor quartet, the recapitulation is hardly a recapitulation at all; while all the original materials are included, they are rearranged and transformed.
There are other structural innovations in opus Haydn develops the idea of "false reprise". Haydn also experiments with cyclical structure: Haydn experiments with expressive techniques in the quartets. An example of this is the G minor quartet, where Haydn defies the standard practice of ending each movement with a cadence played forte. Instead, Haydn ends each movement piano or pianissimo. Another example is the F minor quartet; this quartet, writes Tovey, "is the most nearly tragic work Haydn ever wrote; its first movement being of astonishing depth of thought".
Haydn experiments with asymmetrical phrases and syncopations. The common practice of the time was to write melodies that divided neatly into four- and eight-measure chunks. But the opening phrase of the third quartet, in G minor, is seven measures long, and the minuet of the same quartet has a melody that is divided into two phrases of five measures each. Indeed, in opus 20, most of the minuet movements are minuets in name only. The minuet was a court dance, through-choreographed, built of four groups of four measures in 3 4 time.
The minuets of opus 20, with the exception of numbers 1 and 6, would be impossible to dance to, as they do not have this formal structure. The minuet of the second quartet in C major is built of tied suspensions in the first violin, viola and cello, so that the listener loses all sense of downbeat. The fourth quartet has the off-beat alla zingarese movement.
The minuet of the fifth quartet has a first section of 18 measures, divided asymmetrically. So far did Haydn stray from the formal minuet dance structure, that in his next set of quartets, opus 33 , he did not call them minuets at all, but rather scherzos. The fugal finales of three of the six quartets are Haydn's statement of rejection of the galante.
Not only has Haydn rejected the freedom of the rococo style, he has emphasized that rejection by adhering to strict formality and writing comments into the score explaining the fugal structure. The finale of number six is a "Fuga a 3 Soggetti" a fugue with three fugal subjects. The fugal finales are not mere formalism, however; Haydn clothes them in a dramatic structure suitable for the Sturm und Drang.
All three movements start out sotto voce ; as the fugue develops formally, the tension mounts, but Haydn does not increase the volume, until a sudden, startling burst of forte. Haydn's fugal finales are not the only use of counterpoint in these quartets.
Haydn revives Baroque compositional techniques in other movements as well. The opening of the second quartet is essentially contrapuntal, with the viola and the second violins playing countersubjects to the cello's principal melodic line. Haydn also uses more obscure techniques; in the adagio movement of the fifth quartet, for example, he writes at one point "per figuram retardationis", meaning that the melodic line in the first violin lags behind the harmonic changes in the accompaniment. While the first movement is in straightforward sonata-allegro form, Haydn nonetheless breaks with the standard quartet model of the period.
The second theme of the exposition is presented by the cello, rather than the violin, playing in a high register above the viola accompaniment. Haydn also disguises the return to the recapitulation after the development section of the movement: Haydn uses this trick of a pretended recapitulation in others of the opus 20 quartets. The second movement is a minuet , one of two from the set that follow all the rules of the traditional dance the other is the minuet of number 6.
The finale, marked presto , is built on a six-measure phrase, with extensive use of syncopations in the first violin. In the middle of the movement there is an extended passage where the first violin plays syncopations and the other instruments are playing on the second beat of the 2 4 bar; no one plays on the downbeat, and toward the end of the passage the listener loses track of the meter, until the main theme returns.
In this quartet, Haydn develops the equal interplay between the instruments, the quartet conversation. The first movement opens with a cello solo, playing above the accompanying instruments. In the course of the movement every instrument gets to play the solo — even the viola, who, "besides having a vote in the parliament of four The second movement opens with a bold unisono , then the cello states the theme.
String Quartets, Op.20 (Haydn, Joseph)
It is an emotionally charged movement, with dramatic shifts from pianissimo to forte , mixed with cantabile passages with a sextuplet accompaniment in the viola. The minuet, like others in the set, defies choreography. In the opening section, all the instruments are tied across the barline, so the sense of downbeat dissipates. The effect recalls the sound of a musette de cour , or other type of bagpipe. This movement, too, is very chromatic, with the melody of the second section built on a descending chromatic scale in the first violin. The finale is a fugue with four subjects.
Haydn marks the opening sempre sotto voce. The fugue ripples along in an undertone, through various learned fugal maneuvers — a stretto , al rovescio. The texture gradually thins so that only two voices are playing at once, when suddenly the fugue bursts into forte and cascades of sixteenth notes lead to the close of the quartet.
In the autograph edition, Haydn wrote over this passage, "Laus. Sic fugit amicus amicum" Praise the Lord. Thus one friend flees another friend. The enigma begins with the opening theme of the first movement: It is almost as if Haydn was wagging his tongue at his contemporaries, violating accepted shibboleths of composition. Haydn continues the odd phrase structure in the minuet, which is built of five-measure units.
Aside from its undanceable meter, the minuet is a sombre work, emphatically minor in character. The trio ends with a plagal cadence to G major, for a Baroque-like Picardy third conclusion; but then the minuet recapitulates in G minor. The move from G major back to G minor is so jolting that Drabkin speculates that the trio might possibly have been borrowed from another piece. The third movement, marked Poco Adagio , is a long cantabile aria in G major, dominated by the first violin and the cello.
After the first violin states the theme, the cello takes over with a long rippling line of sixteenth notes. The movement includes a haunting viola solo, unusual in Haydn's quartets, and in quartet writing from that period in general. The finale is marked Allegro molto. Here, too, Haydn continues to defy accepted practice.
Here Haydn makes dramatic use of silence; the opening four-bar theme breaks off suddenly for a half-measure pause. Such pauses recur throughout the movement, giving the movement "a mildly disruptive effect", according to Drabkin. He ends the piece in G major, surprisingly, with a descent from piano to pianissimo.