Program Notes for July 10th, 2011

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman


Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, op. 20 (1825)
Felix Mendelssohn (b. Hamburg, 1809; d. Leipzig, 1847)

Mendelssohn was a polymathic prodigy who found his own distinctive musical voice at the age of 16. There have been other precocious composers: Mozart, Saint-Saëns, and Richard Strauss come to mind. Some composers peaked early: Rossini, Sibelius, and Ives all who lived for considerable life spans after effectively giving up composing. Yet others bloomed late: It took considerable time for Haydn, Beethoven, and Verdi to hit their stride. A few continued to produce masterworks approaching or even after their eightieth year—Verdi, Richard Strauss, Vaughan Williams, and Elliott Carter (100 and still going!) are notable examples. But it is difficult to name another composer (always with the exception of Mozart) who could, as Mendelssohn did, produce one of his most enduring works when he was 16 years old. By the year 1825, when Mendelssohn composed his Octet for Strings, he was already a published composer who had written a dozen string symphonies as well as his Symphony #1 for full orchestra. In that year his professional future enjoyed a considerable boost when his third piano quartet, hot off the press, received the blessing of Cherubini, the influential director of the Paris Conservatoire. But it was in the Octet that Mendelssohn forged his own inimitable style, modeling Bach for counterpoint, Mozart for grace, and Beethoven for power—to paraphrase the New Grove Dictionary of Music.

Although Mendelssohn scored his Octet for Strings to include two combined string quartets, he made little use of the antiphonal quartet-versus-quartet possibilities that might suggest themselves. Instead, he found an endless variety of ways to combine the four violins, two violas and two cellos. Often the instruments work in pairs, the two violas having similar musical material during a passage, for example, or the two “first” violins working as a team. At other times there is a mix-and-match approach, with the first and second violins joining the first viola and the second cello to make a quartet, or the four lower instruments alternating with the four upper ones. When all eight instruments join together, the effect may be impressively full (at the end of the final Presto), softly spooky (at the end of the Scherzo), or thrillingly focused when all instruments play the same fast passage in unison and provide the fuoco (“fire”) toward the middle of the opening Allegro moderato, ma con fuoco movement. Mendelssohn acknowledged that his inspiration for the Scherzo was the famous Walpurgisnacht (“Witches’ Sabbath”) scene from his friend Goethe’s Faust. Mendelssohn was so pleased with the Scherzo that he later used a more fully orchestrated version of it as a substitute movement when he conducted his Symphony #1. The Octet was published in 1830, the year Mendelssohn, then age 21, turned down the offer of a professorship in music at the University of Berlin.

Quintet in F minor for Piano and Strings, op. 34 (1865)
Johannes Brahms (b. Hamburg, 1833; d. Vienna, 1897)

Brahms frequently sought the musical advice of two close friends, the violinist Joseph Joachim and the pianist Clara Schumann. By the time he published his Quintet in F minor for Piano and Strings, he had received an earful. In 1862, Clara effused over the work in its original string quintet form; she did suggest that the Trio of the Scherzo was too short, but mostly responded with such words as “beautiful,” “splendid,” “ingenious,” and even “masterpiece.” Joachim used the words “importance” and “strong,” but he also sent a less enthusiastic message with “difficult” and “afraid.” He later wrote, intending the comment as friendly fire, “What is lacking is, in a word, charm.” Brahms recomposed the work as a Sonata for Two Pianos. In 1864 he gave the premiere of the new version with the collaboration of the piano virtuoso, Carl Tausig. Clara noted its orchestral qualities, and she suggested that it required a larger medium. Her advice: “Fix it again.” Eventually Brahms effected a compromise: a quintet using strings as well as piano. The conductor, Hermann Levi, who used words such as “rich” and “color,” said, “You have turned a monotonous work for two pianos into a thing of great beauty, a masterpiece.” Brahms, unwilling to give up the scoring for two pianos, published both versions, using opus numbers 34 and 34b and the services of two different publishers.

While composing and revising the quintet, Brahms matured and even broke some new ground as a composer. In the opening Allegro non troppo he explored unusual key relationships; the second movement, marked Andante un poco adagio, shows clear signs of his continuing interest in folk music. In the Scherzo: Allegro, Brahms honed his skills in handling rhythm; the number and the variety of rhythmic motives in the opening moments of the movement are staggering, and their working-out required a movement of considerable length. Even Clara Schumann was eventually satisfied with the Trio section. If its proportions are not heroic, its character certainly is. No doubt Joachim gave a special stamp of approval to the contemplative passage at the beginning of the Finale, for here the composer showed off his interest in the art of counterpoint. Since Brahms and Joachim would sometimes exchange contrapuntal puzzles by mail (“given the single part notated below, figure out how to wrestle it into a three-voice canon…”), the passage must have put Joachim on notice. In its continuation the Finale becomes more animated. Finally the accumulated weight of the movement causes it to tumble abruptly to a conclusion.

The Quintet for Piano and Strings was neither the first nor the last composition in which Brahms struggled in order to fit the message to the medium. As always, here he got it just right in the end.

Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.