Mendelssohn wrote the Octet in 1825 when he was just 16 years old and subsequently revised the score in 1832 for publication. This recording uses the original 1825 manuscript that is currently held in the US Library of Congress in Washington D.C., and which has now been put together for publication in a new edition. Played on period instruments and with fingerings and bowings specific to the time, the legacy and influence Mendelssohn gained from his teacher Beethoven, is clear. This edition is immensely expressive and more indulgent than the revisions penned by the more mature, older man that he was seven years later.
‘Altogether it's a splendid performance - a must for all who treasure this masterpiece' BBC Music Magazine, Chamber Choice of the Month
Recorded in St. Mary's Church, Highgate 31 May - 2 June 2010
Produced, engineered and edited by Adrian Hunter
Executive Producer: Adam Binks
Peter Hanson, violin 1
Julia Hanson, violin 2
Vicci Wardman, viola 1
David Watkin, cello 1
Ken Aiso, violin 3
Marcus Barsham-Stevens, violin 4
Oliver Wilson, viola 2
Robin Michael, cello 2
Felix Mendelssohn: Octet, Op.20
'He whom the gods love dies young'
Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn are examples par excellence of this aphorism: the God-given gift burning so brightly but eclipsed before its time. It can be argued that Mendelssohn's powers were on the wane by the time of his death at thirty-eight, whereas Mozart and Schubert were still developing when they were taken prematurely. In the earlier part of the lives of these composers, however, Mendelssohn reigned supreme. There is no work in the oeuvres of Mozart or Schubert, by the age of sixteen, to match Mendelssohn's Octet Op.20. In the entire canon of western music the Octet stands out as a unique creation. It is in this context that this recording first is so important. This substantial work by the teenage prodigy is both well and widely known - or so people may think. However, this first opportunity to hear the original version of the Octet gives valuable insight into the more extensive gestation period of the ultimate version of the work in its most commonly-known guise.
Mendelssohn's autograph manuscript of the original version is dated 15 October 1825 in Berlin. It is clearly a fair copy, beautifully written, and is currently housed in the USA's Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The Octet was first published some years following its composition in , at which point Mendelssohn made substantial revisions, cutting out many passages and rewriting others. However, some of the most extraordinary and radical music was cut by the slightly older composer. The published version of 1832 is somewhat leaner (over 100 bars are cut overall) and in some ways appears more professional, but is it the better overall for these changes? The conclusion to that question is, of course, for the listener to decide but it seems important given its iconic status that people can finally hear this earliest version of the Octet written by this precocious sixteen-year old.
The young Felix was brought up in a comfortable environment where, in common with most Jewish middle-class families of the time, learning and the arts were of vital importance. He showed himself to be prodigiously talented, not only in music, but is also in drawing, painting and languages. Mendelssohn received an all-round high quality education in which all his talents were carefully nurtured, providing a fertile ground in which the seed of his genius was planted. His first teacher for musical composition was Carl Friedrich Zelter and it was through Zelter that he was first introduced to the eminent writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Having previously met Mozart some years earlier at the age of seven, Goethe was also to meet the seven-year old Mendelssohn and remarked on the different levels of sophistication between the two young composers in a conversation with Zelter:
"Musical prodigies [...] are probably no longer so rare; but what this little man can do in extemporizing and playing at sight borders the miraculous, and I could not have believed it possible at so early an age."
"And yet you heard Mozart in his seventh year at Frankfurt?" said Zelter.
"Yes", answered Goethe," [...] but what your pupil already accomplishes, bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child."
Mendelssohn's earliest extant composition dates from 1820 and, in the succeeding five years leading up to the Octet, his composing skills saw some meteoric improvements. Before he was sixteen his considerable output consisted of singspiels, thirteen symphonies for string orchestra, chamber music, songs, motets, anthems and his first symphony for full orchestra. So the Octet masterpiece was not exactly born out of the blue but was rather the crowning achievement of a most extraordinary and rapid development.
Neither was the Octet Mendelssohn's first attempt at chamber music for strings. Apart from some early ‘practice' pieces his opus numbers start with three piano quartets Op.1-3 from 1822 to 1825, and in 1824 he had written a sextet for violin, two violas, cello, double bass and piano Op.111. It was though, apart from his early string quartet in E flat of 1823 (Op. posth.), his first for strings without piano.
The basic structure of the Octet is so well known it hardly needs introduction. The massive first movement with its changes from an almost orchestral texture to the most intimate chamber music is wonderfully engaging throughout, whilst the second movement introduces real pathos into what, up to that point, is a entirely optimistic work. The scherzo, which has much affinity with his score to A Midsummer Night's Dream, is the epitome of fleetness and is inspired by the ‘Walpurgisnacht' episode in Goethe's Faust. The finale is a tour de force, starting as a frantic fugato in eight parts and keeping its momentum up to the very end.
The first change Mendelssohn made to his original version was in the notation of the first movement. In the original the shortest value notes were notated as quavers with a speed indication of ‘Allegro molto e vivace' The revision has the shortest value notes notated as semiquavers with a speed indication of ‘Allegro moderato ma con fuoco'. This has several ramifications. Firstly, of course, there is immediately half the number of bars and with further cuts of eighty-seven bars (forty three and a half in the new notation), the movement is reduced from 733 to 323 bars. One might speculate that this was done for practical purposes; certainly finding suitable places for page-turns in the new edition of the Octet proved problematic. Also, of course, the publisher would have saved a significant amount of paper in every copy of a score along with a set of eight separate parts. The original has a feeling of unity between the notation of the first and last movements where, in both, the shortest value notes are notated as quavers. This may be only psychological but it is a loss nevertheless. A further aspect is that the ‘con fuoco' in the new speed indication doesn't quite convey the urgency of the original ‘Allegro molto e vivace' potentially resulting in a rather different kind of interpretation. Interpreters of the revised version might well play the opening theme in quite a lyrical manner, reserving their fuoco for the loud passages, whereas the original tempo indication encourages a more urgent approach from the start.
The most radical change from Mendelssohn's original version occurs at the start of the development in the first movement. Here, the original starts by developing the material that concluded the exposition, while the revision starts by developing the first subject, cutting some thirty-eight bars (i.e. nineteen in the new notation) and supplying eleven bars of new material. The original is much more interesting in this respect as the usual course of composition would be a development of the first subject. In fact, the original never develops the first subject and the revision has another cut of sixty-one bars (thirty and a half in the new notation) of further development of the second subject group. The original rather seems to have an obsession with the second subject but Mendelssohn's later revisions balances matters out, making the whole development much more ‘conventional'.
There is also a significant change to be found in the second movement, which alters the whole balance of the structure. In both versions the overall sense is of a sonata form movement, although there is not any development as such. There is, however, a recognizable second subject in the relative major, which is recapitulated in the tonic minor. What is so extraordinary in the revision is that the first subject is omitted in the recapitulation. There is a cut of twenty-two bars and three newly written to take the music straight into recapitulation of the second subject. Here Mendelssohn appears to be renewing his predilection for the second subject, which he had expunged from the first movement. It is certainly a radical move and produces quite an unusual result. However, the greater balance of the original and the fact that the first subject is so deeply moving means that it is definitely worth hearing for a second time in the recapitulation providing, as a whole, a more satisfying and affecting movement.
The third movement of the original, ‘Scherzo', is virtually identical with the revision apart from a number of different phrase markings and some altered notes towards the end of the movement in the first cello part. Overall, in the original, the phrasing is much longer over many bars, whereas the slurs in the revision are appreciably shorter, appearing to refer more to particular bowings for the players. The fourth movement, originally marked ‘Molto allegro e vivace' is changed to ‘Presto' in the revised version. It is thirty-seven bars shorter in the revision but, as a result, there is no major structural consequence as found in the first two movements.
© 2011 Roy Mowatt