Mendelssohn: String Quartets Op. 44,
No. 1 and No. 2
The three quartets of opus 44 are the centrepiece of Felix Mendelssohn’s mature string quartets. He wrote them in the years 1837-38, starting composition at the age of 28, when his fame in the international musical community was rapidly growing. The oratorio St. Paul had recently brought international success. He had directed the renowned Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig since 1835. Now, he travelled constantly between the important musical centres of Europe – conducting, advising major cultural and educational committees, composing commissioned works to order for the major festivals and performing as a pianist, organist and chamber musician for the public and royalty of Europe. Family matters similarly came fast and furious with his wedding to Cécile Jeanrenaud, the daughter of a French Protestant clergyman, in March 1837 and the establishment of a new home in Leipzig.
He began composition of the opus 44 quartets during his honeymoon in the Black Forest and completed the earliest of them, in E minor, on June 18, 1837. The E-flat major quartet followed on February 6 of the following year, the day before the birth of his first son, Carl Wolfgang Paul. The last to be completed, in D major, followed on July 24, 1838. With all three complete, Mendelssohn re-ordered them, giving them the numbering we know today and published the set as Trois Grands Quatuors, with a dedication to the Crown Prince of Sweden.
Mendelssohn held the Quartet in D major, Op. 44, No. 1 in high regard. It was the first of the three to be published but the last to be written. “I have just finished my Quartet in D,” he wrote to the violinist Ferdinand David, a close friend and concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. “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.” David and his quartet had already premièred the two earlier opus 44 quartets and now gave the first performance of the D major at one of the quartet’s regular matinées, on February 16, 1839.
The opening movement is an exuberant and high spirited conversation between the four instruments, confidently written and carefully polished. After a period without writing chamber music in the early 1830s, Mendelssohn is now more classically oriented than he was in the earlier, structurally experimental and Beethoven-influenced opus 12 and 13 quartets. The two central movements provide contrast to the quartet’s exuberant start. First comes a gentle, smooth-as-silk Menuetto, somewhat rococo in flavour and in the even structure of its phrases. It is the only minuet in any of Mendelssohn’s quartets. A wistful slow movement follows in which the composer keeps a firm hand on the sentiment. The brilliant finale is a driving saltarello, a whirlwind version of a 16th century dance form that Mendelssohn had already mastered in the final movement of his Italian symphony.
The Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2, the earliest of the three to be written, opens with a sense of urgency, in Mendelssohn’s favoured key of E minor. Through the agitation, there is a touch of melancholy to the first violin theme. Its arching shape and syncopated accompaniment bear a strong resemblance to the opening of the violin concerto that Mendelssohn was to write in the same key and for the same violinist the following year. (Its opening arching arpeggio phrase also mirrors the opening of the finale of Mozart’s late G minor symphony, but there the similarity ends.) The tautly woven musical ideas of the movement balance the tension of the opening theme with the repose of its second theme. The fertility of invention carries over into the sparkling Scherzo. This is propelled by rhythmic vitality and constantly surprises us with the unexpected. At the same time, everything lies comfortably on the fingerboard – as in the Octet, this is music that is written for those who play as well as for the instruments they play upon. Mendelssohn brings a violinist’s (and viola player’s) inside knowledge to the interplay between the four instruments. “He never touched a string instrument the whole year round,” the composer Ferdinand Hiller once said, “but, when he wanted to play, as with most things in life, he could do it.” The slow movement is a bittersweet song-without words, whose main melody sounds especially eloquent when it reappears on the cello. Any hint of sentimentality – a concern in some of Mendelssohn’s music – is avoided with the composer’s caution not to drag out (nicht schleppend) the movement. The finale again reveals great sophistication in the intricate way Mendelssohn handles bravura material, marrying musical craft with technical virtuosity.
© 2015 Keith Horner