Mendelssohn, Felix: String Quartet in E minor, op. 44, no. 2

Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet op. 44, no. 2, in E minor is one of a surprisingly large number of excellent pieces he wrote while on his honeymoon. He also wrote a choral setting of Psalm 42 (op. 42), the D minor Piano Concerto, and the Song Without Words, op 38/6. It was not a frantic or emotionally volatile outpouring of pieces, though. Mendelssohn seems simply to have found himself happily productive, and working to approach composition in a manner befitting his new stature as a mature and married man. One biographer describes Mendelssohn’s habits (though not his music) as having been ‘curiously systematic’ – implying, gently, that Mendelssohn was making a self-conscious effort toward adult behavior (whatever that might be).

The E minor String Quartet begins very much like his Violin Concerto (also in E minor, written a few years later), with a long, winding tune floating over serious rhythmic activity. Much of the motion of the movement comes from the changing relationship between this tune and its rhythmic counterpart. The second movement is a fine example of Mendelssohn’s extraordinary talent and taste for the tastefully spectacular. The lightness of it, its quick exchanges, and its transparency, show a fleetness and facility which he always had, and which no other composer has ever really matched (one could look, for a few more examples, to the Octet, to A Midsummer Night’s Dream or to the scherzo of the D minor Piano Trio). Throughout the String Quartet there is a curiously resonant conflict between the fanciful and the rigorous – played out in many ways and on many different scales.

It is worth taking to a moment to consider the enormous influence Mendelssohn has had on musical culture (in classical circles, anyway). For although he may be occasionally accused of being over-bourgeois, the roots of his thought, musical and non-musical, went extremely deep. His grandfather, Moses, was one of the most influential philosophers of his time, and exerted a large, though largely unspoken, influence on the family. Moreover, Felix Mendelssohn was exceptionally rigorous in matters of both history and counterpoint, and his 1829 revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was one of the crucial moments in 19th century classical music-making. He also fairly well invented the role of the modern conductor. Mendelssohn’s contributions were in no way simple, and his ostensibly straightforward musical life may well come to seem more and more interesting.

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