The Kennedy Center

String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13

About the Work

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

Mendelssohn's spectacular apprenticeship as pianist, violinist and composer from 1820 to 1825 (ages eleven to sixteen) saw the creation of at least eighty works - operas, operettas, string quartets, chamber pieces, concertos, motets, symphonies for strings - most of which were written for and performed on the Sunday concerts planned, rehearsed and performed by young Felix at the family's elegant mansion in Berlin. By 1825, however, Mendelssohn was on the verge of emerging from his artistic youth into his creative maturity. The previous year, he had composed a Symphony in C minor, his first to include full wind section, which he retrospectively anointed as his "No. 1" upon its publication in 1834, thereby consigning the dozen early string symphonies to his childhood oeuvre. In March 1825, his father, one of Germany's leading bankers, showed him off in Paris, where Felix impressed Cherubini, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Halévy and other luminaries of French music with his prodigious talent. When he returned home, Mendelssohn, then sixteen, composed the Octet for Strings, the greatest piece of music ever written by one so young. The incomparable Midsummer Night's Dream Overture followed the next year. Another of the creations of Mendelssohn's early maturity was the String Quintet in A major, also written in 1826, the year in which he enrolled at Berlin University, where his teachers included the philosopher Friedrich Hegel, an old friend of the family.

One of the participants in the early performances of the Quintet was Eduard Rietz, a close friend of Mendelssohn and a violinist of excellent talent and taste. Rietz, born in Berlin in 1802 (just seven years before Mendelssohn), was the son of a musical family - his father was a musician at the Prussian court; his brother, Julius, a noted cellist, conductor and composer, succeeded Mendelssohn as director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts upon the composer's death in 1847 and edited his complete works for publication in the 1870s. Mendelssohn began violin lessons in 1816 with Carl Wilhelm Henning, a respected member of the Berlin Opera orchestra, but soon thereafter requested that his instruction be taken over by Rietz. In appreciation and friendship, he composed a violin concerto in D minor for Rietz in 1820, and five years later presented him with the superb Octet for Strings as a birthday gift. It was Rietz who wrote out Mendelssohn's study score of the St. Matthew Passion from Bach's original manuscript, and who both copied out the parts for his friend's epochal revival of the work in 1829 and acted as concertmaster, refusing payment for any of his services. Rietz and Mendelssohn remained close, and Felix was stunned when he learned of Eduard's premature death from consumption at the age of thirty in February 1832. "He was my favorite violinist," Mendelssohn wrote. "The knowledge that there was such a man in the world, one in whom you could repose, and who lived to love you, and whose wishes and aims were identical with your own - that is all over. It is the most severe blow I have ever received. Never can I forget him." As a memorial to his friend, he again took up the A major String Quintet in which Rietz had taken part, and wrote for it a new second movement, an Intermezzo that he subtitled Nachruf ("In Memoriam") to replace the original Minuet and Trio. The Quintet was published as Mendelssohn's Op. 18 by Simrock in Berlin in 1833.

The A major Quintet borrows its viola-rich instrumentation from that of Mozart's string quintets, and likewise shows Mendelssohn's thorough absorption of Classical formal models. In harmony and instrumental technique, however, the work broaches the expanded expressive techniques of encroaching Romanticism. The Quintet opens with a graceful violin theme, reminiscent of a minuet, that is couched in the finely crafted texture with which Mendelssohn was fond of showing off his contrapuntal skill in his early works. The transition, too, indulges in much contrapuntal dialogue before the movement arrives at its formal second theme, a staccato phrase presented by the ensemble. The development section is skillfully woven from the main theme. The recapitulation is abbreviated by the omission of the transition passage. The Intermezzo honors the composer's violinist friend, Rietz, both in the fervency of its expression and in the concertante importance given to the first violin. The movement's sonata form is built from two motives: a hymnal melody presented in chordal fashion immediately at the beginning, and a wide-ranging arpeggiated theme for the violin accompanied by quick, three-note pulses in the lower instruments. The Scherzo displays Mendelssohn's peerless mastery of this idiom. "This movement is remarkable, almost on the order of the Midsummer Night's Dream Scherzo," wrote the distinguished critic emeritus of The New York Times Harold Schonberg, "and a kind of music unheard-of at the time. It buzzes along in its elfin manner, light as bees' wings, suddenly dissipating. Lovely." The sonata-form finale, which continues the buoyant mood and figurations of the Scherzo, utilizes a mercurial melody announced at the outset and a cantabile violin strain suspended above an insistent viola background. The sparkling brilliance of the music is maintained throughout, and the Quintet concludes with a breathtaking display of nimble ensemble virtuosity.