The Kennedy Center

Octet in E-flat major for Strings, Op. 20

About the Work

Felix Mendelssohn Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
© Richard Freed

Mendelssohn composed his remarkable String Octet in October 1825, when he was 16 years old; the first performance took place before the end of that year in one of the Sunday musicales at his family's home in Berlin. The National Symphony Orchestra performed the Scherzo from this work, in Mendelssohn's orchestration for full orchestra, under Mstislav Rostropovich on April 20, 22, and 25, 1989, but has not performed the entire work, with the strings alone, until the present concerts.

The composer's original scoring called for double string quartet--that is, four violins, two violas and two cellos. Apart from simply expanding the numbers of these instruments, the present performances include double basses as well, which were added by Arturo Toscanini for his broadcast performance of the work with his NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1947. Duration, 30 minutes.

Throughout the twentieth century, it was not unusual for works from the chamber-music repertory to turn up in orchestral concerts. Before Arnold Schoenberg orchestrated Brahms's G-minor Piano Quartet and created his string-orchestra version of his own string sextet Tranfigured Night, before George Szell produced his full-orchestral adaptation of Smetana's String Quartet called From My Life, and Rudolf Barshai began orchestrating Shostakovich quartets, Gustav Mahler (who in his own time was more widely recognized as a conductor than as a composer) introduced his carefully crafted arrangements for string orchestra of quartets by Beethoven and Schubert. Various other conductors, such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini, William Steinberg, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leonard Bernstein and Neville Marriner, simply doubled or quadrupled the original string parts to present orchestral versions of such works as Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence (originally for string sextet), the Verdi Quartet, Rossini's string sonatas, various Beethoven quartets and the same composer's Septet for winds and strings. The last of Mozart's serenades, and the only one he composed for strings alone, the one he called Eine kleine Nachtmusik, simply took its place in the repertory of the string orchestra without calling attention to itself. Mendelssohn's marvelous Octet would seem to have been a natural candidate for such treatment, but it appears that the aforementioned Toscanini was the only prominent conductor who took it on in his time, and he apparently performed the work as such only once, in a broadcast performance that was subsequently issued as an RCA Victor recording--which Leonard Slatkin recalled in remarking on his selection of this work to showcase the NSO strings in this week's concerts:

When more than four string-players get together for casual music-making, there are a few pieces that seem to come up. The Schubert Quintet with two cellos usually tops the list, followed by the Brahms sextets and, if there is a sufficient number of players on hand, the Mendelssohn Octet. These are not only out-and-out masterpieces, but are also works that can be sight-read, as most string players know them from their days as advanced students.

One of my most prized recordings from the time I began collecting records, was a performance of the Mendelssohn in which Arturo Toscanini conducted members of the NBC Symphony. It had been common practice at the time for conductors to take works from the chamber-music repertoire and expand them for larger forces. Usually this simply meant adding four or five players to each part, but once in a while there were some wholesale changes made to the actual notes on the page, mostly to accommodate the expanded orchestra. Perhaps it was because these outstanding musicians knew that unless they made orchestra versions of these pieces they would never have the opportunity to perform some of the greatest music ever created.

Whatever the reason, there are a few pieces that really seem "symphonic" in scope and lend themselves to performances by larger forces than originally intended. For our concerts, we expand each of the eight parts by six players. There are no changes of notes, as part of the fun is to try to play this piece as if it were gigantic chamber music. But we do add a few double basses to the instrumentation. As it happened, our ever resourceful librarian, Marcia Farabee, found a set of parts for those instruments--but she did not know who had added them. Of course it was not Mendelssohn himself, even though he did produce a version of the scherzo for full orchestra. When I saw the actual handwritten parts for the basses, a light bulb went on over my head: the calligraphy looked very familiar.

I asked Marcia to see if we still had the parts for "The Star-Spangled Banner" as arranged by Toscanini, which we performed a few years ago as part of a series of orchestrations of our National Anthem by various composers and conductors. Sure enough, that material was still here. We knew that the parts for that arrangement had actually been copied out by the Maestro in his own hand--and the added double bass parts for the Mendelssohn Octet are clearly in the same hand. So what we are playing this week is the traditional published version of the Mendelssohn, with an expanded group of strings, and with the bass parts added by Toscanini.

In 1825, when Mendelssohn composed his Octet, Beethoven, Schubert and Weber were still alive and still active. Schubert had composed his own Octet in F major--a work for winds and strings following the pattern of Beethoven's early Septet--only the previous year. This work by the 16-year-old Mendelssohn clearly confirmed his right to stand beside such illustrious colleagues; it was in fact the work that marked the beginning of his maturity as a composer. He reconfirmed that status the following year with his no less remarkable Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream. By that time he had been composing for several years and had piled up a dozen symphonies for strings, numerous concertos and some chamber music which he chose not to publish, regarding those works as mere juvenilia. He had also composed his first mature symphony, which he labeled "No. 1" and designated his Op. 11, at age 15, but even that splendidly balanced work gave little hint of what was to come in the Octet and the Overture to Shakespeare's play. (The String Quartets Nos. 1, Op. 12, and 2, Op. 13, despite their misleading opus numbers, did not appear until 1829 and 1827, respectively.)

Mr. Slatkin's view of this work as one of the few in the chamber-music repertory "that really seem ‘symphonic' in scope . . . " is actually an acknowledgement of Mendelssohn's success in carrying out his own intentions. Without suggesting additional instruments. The composer indicated in the score that his Octet was to be played "by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character." He surely foresaw the work's being performed by larger bodies of strings than specified in his score, and within three years of composing it he himself turned the obvious orchestral potentialities of its scherzo to great advantage in a new instrumentation for use as an alternative to the minuet movement of his Symphony No. 1 which he performed on his first visit to London in 1829. In its orchestral garb with winds and drums this piece became the grandest and most dazzling specimen of Mendelssohn's "elfin" scherzo style, surpassing even the brilliance of the one he was to compose later for A Midsummer Night's Dream as well as all his others irrespective of instrumentation. Nothing is missing in the original string setting in the way of fantasy or color, and the chamber-music origins aren't hinted at in the orchestral one; Mendelssohn in effect created two distinctly characterized gems from the same basic material. While both versions are treasurable, listeners familiar with the orchestral one alone may be happily surprised to discover how effective the piece is in its original setting for strings alone, and how splendidly it relates to the rest of the work of which it is a part.

The "symphonic orchestral style" of the Octet is apparent in its very opening, which in its warmheartedly and assertively orchestral gesture seems to relate less to the realm of chamber music than to the string-orchestra serenades and similar works to come from the likes of Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Suk, Grieg and Holst. It discloses also, however, a foretaste of Mendelssohn's own String Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2, which embodies this orchestral character to a somewhat lesser degree. This broadly proportioned opening movement, which accounts for nearly half the work's length, is followed by an imaginative Andante in which a songlike siciliano serves as frame for a somewhat more animated middle section with internal contrasts of its own.

The famous Scherzo in G minor might be said to point the way directly to the Midsummer Night's Dream music, but the inspiration, according to Mendelssohn's sister Fanny (an accomplished composer in her own right), came from a different literary source, though one that does involve two of the characters in Shakespeare's comedy: the section of Goethe's Faust which the poet headed "Walpurgis Night's Dream, or the Golden Wedding of Oberon and Titania." The specific lines cited by the composer were these:

Wolkenzug und Nebelflor   Streaks of cloud and veils of mist
Erhellen sich von oben.   Bright'ning o'er us hover.
Luft im Laub und Wind im Rohr,   Air stirs the brake, the rushes shake,
Und alles ist zerstoben.   And all our pomp is over.

Mendelssohn was defining his own terms in this scherzo: first of all casting it in 2/4 instead of the ¾ that was the norm for such movements at the time, and also laying it out in sonata form, with an elegant little coda but without a trio. The marking Allegro leggierissimo (Briskly and as lightly as possible) adequately defines the character of the piece, which is to be played sempre pp e staccato.

Having created a piece so stunning on its own, Mendelssohn did not hesitate to allude to the scherzo in the energetic final movement, which, while showing a certain awareness of Handel's fugal style, adds up to quite an assertion of the individuality, as well as the all-round inexhaustible imaginativeness, that marked this achievement of the sure-handed 16-year-old. Even twenty years later, with his great symphonies and concertos, his oratorios and the Midsummer Night's Dream music behind him, Mendelssohn spoke of the Octet of his favorite among all his works, and liked to recall that he had had "a lovely time writing it."