Mendelssohn, Felix: String Quintet, Op. 87

There are a few avenues open for discussion of Felix Mendelssohn’s Quintet Op. 87 for 2 violins, 2 violas, and cello. It has an exceptionally exuber- ant first violin part; it has four movements; it is in Bb major; it bears a reasonably close formal resemblance to his string quartet Op. 44 No. 1; it was written in 1845. These things are good to know. But it is the bicentennial of Mendelssohn’s birth; why pour cold water on the works? Perhaps it is best to leave some of the description to the man himself. He did not write a program for this piece, but he did give a wonderfully curious description of listening itself – of the relation between music and text, and his consequent aesthetic stance – in a letter that has rightly become famous, and which creates as rich a context as any fact or investigation. It was written to his student Marc André Souchay in 1842, as an objection to the addition of words to his “songs without words”:

So much is spoken about music and so little is said. For my part I do not believe that words suffice for such a task, and if they did I would no longer make any music. People usually complain that music is too many-sided in its mean- ings; what they should think when they hear it is so ambiguous, whereas every- one understands words. For me, it is precisely the opposite, not only with entire speeches, but with individual words. They too seem so ambiguous, so vague, so subject to misunderstanding when compared with true music, which fills the soul with a thousand better things than words. The thoughts that are expressed to me by the music I love are not too indefinite to put into words, but, on the contrary, too definite. And I find every effort to express such thoughts legitimate, but alto- gether inadequate…

So let it be, for now, with Mendelssohn. The history of Mendelssohn’s life, death, and subsequent reception are full of musical, political, literary, and even terrifying words; here is a work from a man who understood other possibilities for understanding, and brought them into the world to be heard in all of their spectacular specificity.

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