The Kennedy Center

String Quartet in D major, Op. 44, No. 1

About the Work

Felix Mendelssohn Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Mendelssohn was almost certainly the most professionally successful musician of the 19th century. His career showed none of the reverses, disappointments and delays that were the rule for the other great Romantic composers; indeed, it was precisely the overwork and exhaustion to meet the demands for his presence and his performances that led to his untimely death at the age of 38. The most intensely busy time of his life was ushered in by his appointment in 1835 as the administrator, music director and conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts. In very short order, he raised the quality of musical life in Leipzig to equal that of any city in Europe, and in 1842 he founded the local Conservatory to maintain his standards of excellence. (The school was to be the most highly regarded institution of its kind in the world for the next half-century.) He toured, guest conducted and composed incessantly, and on March 28, 1837 took on the additional responsibilities of family life when he married Cécile Jeanrenaud. ?A conscientious chronicle of Mendelssohn's next few years [after 1835] would merely weary the reader,? noted the late George Marek in his fine biography of the composer. ?It would link work with more work, string success after success, place tribute next to tribute, and enumerate an ever larger register of acquaintances and friends.?

The first child of the Mendelssohns' marriage, Carl Wolfgang Paul, was born on February 7, 1838. (Felix completed the E-flat Quartet, Op. 44, No. 3 just the day before.) Cécile fell seriously ill after the delivery, however, and the following months were an anxious time for the family. By June, she had recovered sufficiently for Mendelssohn to fill his commitment to conduct at the Lower Rhine Festival in Cologne, but he hurried back to Leipzig, collected his growing brood (the couple had five children during the ten years of their happy marriage) and spent the summer in Berlin. It was there that he composed his setting of the Psalm 95 , the B-flat Cello Sonata, the Andante and Presto agitato for Piano, and the D major Quartet, Op. 44, No. 1. The completed score of the Quartet was dated on July 24, 1838. A week later, he wrote to Ferdinand David, a close friend and the recently appointed concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, ?I have just finished my Quartet in D major, and I like it very much. I hope it may please you as well. I rather think it will, since it is more spirited and seems to me likely to be more grateful to the players than the others.? (The third quartet comprising the Op. 44 set had been completed in June 1837.) In the same letter he mentioned an E minor violin concerto ?that keeps running through my head? which he wanted to compose for David, though he did not find time to finish that work for another six years. The new piece was played by the David Quartet later that year at the Gewandhaus. The three quartets of 1837-1838 were published as Op. 44, with a dedication to the Crown Prince of Sweden. Though composed last, Mendelssohn placed the D major Quartet at the beginning of the set as a mark of his high estimation of the music.

?Mendelssohn's chamber music,? wrote Donald N. Ferguson, ?is what might be expected from a man of extraordinary talent, educated almost wholly by contact with the best things, the best people, and the best ideas to be found in his privileged world.... His music reflects this disposition. It is a model of design and of discrimination in color; but its objective is pleasure, and it shuns the deeper reaches of pain.? The brilliant, virtuosic and nearly orchestral opening movement of the D major Quartet testifies to Ferguson's conclusion. The music is energized by a lusty impetuosity and rhythmic verve that seem about to burst the Classical simplicity of its sonata form. The first violin introduces the movement's main theme, a bounding melody begun with a quickly ascending phrase that in the decades before its composition would have been called a ?rocket motive.? The movement's vigor slackens only briefly for the presentation of the complementary theme, a hymnal melody in a slightly sad minor tonality. The development section, based on the main theme, makes prominent use of the ?rocket motive.? With only a brief respite to allow for the recall of the second theme, the high level of energy carries through the recapitulation to the end of the movement.

As a foil to the powerful opening Allegro , Mendelssohn placed next not the expected vivacious scherzo but a gentle Menuetto . The outer sections of the movement are lilting and graceful, while the central trio is marked by ceaseless flowing ribbons of eighth notes. The tenderest sentiments of the Quartet are touched on in the bittersweet Andante . The music is disposed in sonatina form (sonata without a development section): the lyrical main theme is given by the violin above a discreet pizzicato accompaniment in the lower strings; the second theme, again initiated by the violin, employs a sustained note in the cello and an undulating counterpoint in the inner voices as background. The spirited finale was inspired by the tarantella , the fiery Italian dance that also served as the model for the closing movement of Mendelssohn's ?Italian? Symphony, completed in 1834, and revised just the year before this Quartet was written.