Octet for Strings, Op. 20
Composed 1825
Duration ca. 30 minutes
Scored for 4 violins, 2 violas, and 2 cellos

Several composers who went on to important achievements were known first as child prodigies. Mozart was and remains especially renowned in this respect, his early fame stemming largely from the concert tours he undertook as a boy. No composer, however, was more precocious than Felix Mendelssohn, whose creative talent matured at an earlier age than even that of Mozart. For while the latter’s juvenile compositions, impressive though they are, only faintly suggest the great works of his maturity, several pieces Mendelssohn wrote as an adolescent stand among his finest achievements. The first of these was his Octet for Strings, Opus 20. Mendelssohn composed this work in 1825, when he was sixteen. While full of youthful vitality and directness of expression, its music enjoys a wealth of melodic detail that a seasoned composer would proudly claim. Moreover, its sure handling of harmonic movement and compositional form impart a strong sense of shape and direction to each of its four movements, and to the composition as a whole.

The ensemble of eight string instruments for which Mendelssohn scored this piece approaches the outer limit of what can be considered chamber music, and much of the Octet seems more than that, sounding almost symphonic in character. The composer evidently conceived the work in such terms, for he directed that the music “must be played by all the instruments in an orchestral style,” with contrasts between loud and soft dynamics emphasized. This quasi-symphonic conception is especially evident in the expansive first movement. Here the surging principal theme that initially dominates the proceedings — echoes of it even punctuate the dance-like secondary melody — gives way to surprisingly somber music in the central development episode. But after descending to a point of dramatic stillness and near-silence, the music rides a long and equally dramatic crescendo to the reprise of the first theme, recovering its momentum and the spirited character in which it began.

There follows a slow movement colored by poignant minor-key harmonies, then a scherzo whose running figuration foreshadows the “fairy music” style Mendelssohn would use so effectively, and so influentially, in his overture and incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fanny Mendelssohn, the composer’s sister, declared that this movement was inspired by another literary work imbued with a sense of the supernatural: the Walpurgis Night scene in Goethe’s Faust, which describes a convocation of witches, demons, and spirits. “The isolated tremolos, the trills flashing like lightning,” she wrote, “all is new, strange, and yet so ingratiating and pleasing. One feels close to the world of spirits, carried up into the air, inclined to grab a broomstick and follow the airy procession.” 

The finale also employs fleet melodic figuration. Its character, however, is generally brighter than that of the scherzo, and its textures are thoroughly polyphonic, the different instrumental lines echoing each other in counterpoint but joining together at important junctures to form a tightly knit, concerted musical fabric. A tag to the main theme, in relatively elongated rhythms, gives a quotation from the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s Messiah, the melody at the words “And He shall reign forever.” Whether Mendelssohn realized the connection, or attached any significance to it, we can only guess.


Ludwig van Beethoven
Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20
Composed 1799-1800
Duration ca. 43 minutes
Scored for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and bass

Beethoven completed his Septet, Opus 20, sometime during the first months of 1800, though drafts in his sketchbooks suggest that he began writing it during the previous year. On April 2, the composer gave the first public presentation of his music in Vienna, and this provided the occasion for the Septet’s official premiere. (A private reading had already occurred.) The program for this concert included also the inaugural performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony, one of his early piano concertos, and keyboard improvisations by the composer. But it was the Septet that made the most favorable impression. It became enormously popular — so much so that the publisher to whom Beethoven presently sold the work was kept busy bringing out arrangements of it for smaller ensembles more readily available at domestic chamber-music gatherings; one of these was a transcription for piano trio made by Beethoven himself. Nearly a quarter of a century after its premiere, the Septet retained such favored that Franz Schubert would be commissioned to write something just like it. (The result was his Octet, which indeed resembles Beethoven’s work in several important respects.)

The success of this piece did much to establish Beethoven as the foremost young musician in Vienna, the successor to Mozart and the now aged Haydn. Ironically, the work’s popularity eventually came to irritate the composer. According to his student Carl Czerny, “He could not endure his Septet and grew angry because of the universal applause with which it was received.” Beethoven’s reaction undoubtedly had much to do with the less favorable reception of some of his later and more ambitious compositions.

Scored for violin, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, the Septet unfolds in six movements of diverse character. In this it belongs to the genus and species of Classical-period serenade, a type of composition Mozart had cultivated with considerable artistry. As in many of Mozart’s serenades, its outer movements provide the work’s most thoroughly developed music, while the inner ones are either dance-related (the minuet and scherzo) or leisurely slow movements. The tone throughout is relaxed and unbuttoned. None of Beethoven’s famous heroic struggles or defiance of fate here; this is one of the composer’s most unambiguously sunny compositions.

The first movement begins, as do so many Classical-period symphonies, with an introductory passage in slow tempo. Pausing momentarily on an expectant chord, the music then plunges into the rapid main portion of the movement, which Beethoven bases mostly on the energetic theme given out in its initial minute.

The second movement, marked “Adagio cantabile,” flows out of a long-breathed melody begun by the clarinet and passed to the violin in the opening measures. Here and throughout the movement, the elegantly shaped instrumental lines and gently pulsing accompaniment indicate a romanza, and the sense of reverie typical of that genre pervades the music.

There follows a pleasantly bouncing minuet whose central section, or “Trio,” is enlivened by fanfares from the horn and clarinet. The fourth movement takes the form of a theme with variations. Its subject melody, stated at the outset, is nearly identical to a Rhineland folk tune — the inevitable debate over whether Beethoven knew the song has proved inconclusive — and each of the paraphrases that follow has some distinguishing feature. The first, for example, uses just string trio; the third features the clarinet and bassoon chasing each other in echoic counterpoint; the fourth resorts to minor-key harmonies. A brief coda concludes the movement.

Next comes a scherzo in which the spirit of hunting music is never far from the surface. (Note the horn figures in the opening measures, as well as the robust melody for the cello in the Trio passage.) Like the first movement, the finale begins with a slow introduction. This time the prologue takes the form of a dirge, one whose pathos is, however, far from convincing. Whatever suspicions we may harbor about the music’s sincerity would seem confirmed by the ease with which it slips into the ensuing Presto. Here Beethoven betrays hardly a trace of melancholy. The movement races along in high spirits, propelled to a considerable extent by the playing of the violin. That instrument contributes athletic passagework, including a solo cadenza, and brings the entire work to a conclusion by leaping to a stratospheric E-flat just before the close.