Mendelssohn, Felix: Octet for Strings in E flat, Op. 20 (ii)

There are many things to say about the Mendelssohn Octet, and in the 188 years since its premiere, a great many fine things have been said. But the discussion isn’t done: much of the commentary bears repeating, rephrasing, reaffirmation, and extension, because (as someone must have said by now) there is quite literally nothing else like the Mendelssohn Octet. Even that little phrase (“there’s… nothing else like [it]”) bears repeating, simply to affirm how this work can extend one’s sense of what is possible for people, generally, to make.

Within its sound, a pure energy stands out immediately. From the first bars, there is a drive which might be called ‘motoric’ only for lack of a better word – but insofar as the Octet might be motor-driven, it seems to be powered by water, sun, melody, or some sort of palpable joy. And as the octet gains speed, sound, and musicians (as in the fugal writing), it seems only to become lighter, stronger, and quicker. In its sounds, it seems to describe a growth toward life – a growth that moves upward, and seems unaware of anything merely mineral.

External viewpoints are equally startling. Historically speaking, Mendelssohn’s choice to write an octet for strings was by no means self-evident. There are relatively few string octets in the repertoire even now, and Mendelssohn had few (if any) models to draw upon. That is to say: a huge number of the compositional choices, which seem inevitable now, had to be drawn up from scratch, for a group with eight distinct voices. How could he? How could anybody? But the fact remains, he did.

And then there are biographical matters, yet more astonishing: Mendelssohn wrote the Octet as a birthday present for his violin teacher when he was sixteen years old. (This bears repeating as well, so the facts may stand out, even for those who know them: a birthday present? sixteen years old?)  And Mendelssohn was to become a pianist and conductor. Violin, like so many things, was just something more to learn, and to do.

This would have been enough for anybody. But there is a political and religious dimension as well. Mendelssohn came from one of the most famous Jewish families in Europe, brought to public importance by his grandfather Moses Mendelssohn; briefly speaking, Moses Mendelssohn brought the possibility of Jewish membership in everyday European life much closer to being a real possibility. Felix Mendelssohn’s father converted to Christianity; and the 16-year-old Felix, no doubt aware of the family history and its contradictions, stuck the Finale of Handel’s Messiah (‘and he shall reign for ever and ever’) into the last movement of his Octet with a sort of casual brilliance.

That is perhaps enough to say. But to see and hear some of the facts around and inside this piece is to know that there is something special about it, something, at the least, quite out of the ordinary.

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