MENDELSSOHN / BRUCH: String Octets
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Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847):
Octet in E flatmajor, Op. 20 (1825)Max Bruch (1838-1920): Octet in B flat major, Op. posth.
(1920) Born in Hamburg in 1809, eldest son of the banker AbrahamMendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, FelixMendelssohn, who took the additional name Bartholdy on his baptism as a Christian,was brought up in Berlin, where his family settled in 1812. Here he enjoyed thewide cultural opportunities that his family offered, through their own interestsand connections.
Manifested in a number of directions, Mendelssohn's earlygifts, included marked musical precocity, both as a composer and as aperformer, at a remarkably early age. These exceptional abilities receivedevery encouragement from his family and their friends, although Abraham Mendelssohnentertained early doubts about the desirability of his son taking theprofession of musician. These reservations were in part put to rest by theadvice of Cherubini in Paris and by the increasing signs of the boy's musicalabilities and interests.
Mendelssohn's early manhood brought the opportunity totravel, as far south as Naples and as far north as The Hebrides, with Italy and Scotland both providing the inspiration for later symphonies. His career involved him inthe Lower Rhine Festival in D??sseldorf and a period as city director of music,followed, in 1835, by appointment as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Here he was able to continue the work he had started in Berlin six years earlier,when he had conducted a revival of Bach's St Matthew Passion
. Leipzig was to provide a degree of satisfaction that he could not find in Berlin, where he returned at the invitation of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1841. In Leipzig once more, in 1843, he established a new Conservatory, spending his final yearsthere, until his death at the age of 38 on 4 November 1847, six months afterthe death of his gifted and beloved sister Fanny.
Mendelssohn owed his early training as a violinist to histeacher and friend Eduard Rietz. Born in Berlin in 1802, the son of a violinistin the Berlin Court Orchestra, Rietz had joined the same orchestra in 1819,leaving it in 1825, after disagreements with the conductor Spontini, to found theBerlin Philharmonic Society the following year, leading its semi-amateurorchestra in concerts with the Berlin Singakademie. This was the ensemble thathe led in Mendelssohn's famous revival of Bach's St Matthew Passion in 1829, anenterprise in which he and his cellist brother Julius had collaborated byhelping to write out the parts for the performance. Mendelssohn dedicated toRietz his Violin Concerto in D minor, the Octet and the Violin Sonata in Fminor, Op. 4. Rietz died of consumption in 1832 and Mendelssohn then dedicated tohis memory the slow movement of his String Quintet, Op. 18.
The Octet in E flat major, in which Mendelssohn himself onoccasion took the second viola part, was written in 1825 and immediatelyprecedes in order of composition the concert overture A Midsummer Night'sDream
, with which the Scherzo has obvious affinities. It was conceived inorchestral terms and is an astonishing feat of virtuosity from asixteen-year-old, innovative in instrumentation and in its treatment of theinstruments. Considerable demands are made of the first violin, in a partwritten originally for Rietz, for whom the work was intended as a birthday present.
Much use is made of the ascending figuration of the first subject, which isfully exploited, while a secondary theme makes its appearance, at first insixths between the fourth violin and first viola. The repeated exposition isduly followed by a central development, a chance for changes of texture,dynamic variation and changes of mood. The music mounts to a climax of largelyunanimous activity before the first theme returns in recapitulation. The C minorslow movement has been variously analysed. It is opened by violas and cellos,answered by the violins, as the principal melodic material unwinds, in whatmight seem the first subject of a modified sonata-form movement. Its etherealbeauty is followed by the G minor Scherzo, seemingly, according to the composer'ssister Fanny, inspired by lines from Goethe's Faust
, the Walpurgis NightDream, 'Clouds and mist pass / it grows bright above. / Air in the bushes andwind in the reeds / - and all is dispersed' (Wolkenzug und Nebelflor / erhellen sich von oben.
/ Luft im Laub und Wind im Rohr / - und alles ist zerstoben
). The busy figuration is continuedin the final fugal Presto
, its principal subject mounting through the instruments,from the initial entry of the second cello. The perpetual motion of themovement nevertheless allows the addition of other thematic elements andexplicit references to the preceding Scherzo.
Today Max Bruch is generally known only as the composer ofworks for the violin. In addition to the Violin Concerto in G minor, thepopularity of which continues, and, to the annoyance of the composer,eventually overshadowed much of his other work, we hear from time to time the ScottishFantasy
and the Second Violin Concerto.
The fact that Bruch, in hisday, was famous for his large-scale choral works is forgotten. Between 1870 and1900 there were numerous performances of works such as Odysseus
or Das Lied von der Glocke
, earning for the composer a reputationthat momentarily outshone that of Brahms.
Max Bruch was born in Cologne on 6 January, 1838, in thesame year as Bizet. He studied there with Ferdinand Hiller and Carl Reinecke.
Extended journeys at home and abroad as a student were followed by a longerstay in Mannheim, where his opera Loreley
was performed in 1863, a workbased on a libretto by Geibel and originally intended for Mendelssohn, whichbrought him to the attention of a wider public. Bruch's first official appointmentswere as Kapellmeister, first in Koblenz from 1865 to 1867, and then inSondershausen until 1870, followed by a longer stay in Berlin and a period from1873 to 1878 in Bonn, when he dedicated himself to composition. After a shorttime as director of the Sternscher Gesangverein in Berlin, in 1880 he was appointed conductor of the LiverpoolPhilharmonic Orchestra, where he succeeded Julius Benedict, leaving England in 1883 to become director of the Orchesterverein in Breslau. In 1891 he moved finally to Berlin and took over master-classes in composition, Respighi being one of his pupils. Heretired in 1911 to devote himself to composition, although now essentiallywriting in a traditional style that seemed to have passed. He died in Berlin on 2 October, 1920.
Bruch's Octet in B flat major, one of his last works, waswritten in January and February 1920, seven months before the composer's death,and apparently a reworking of a recently composed string quintet. It isseemingly modelled on Mendelssohn's Octet, although the later substitution of adouble bass for the second cello made the work into a possible item in stringorchestra repertoire, described then as Concerto for String Orchestra. The Octet
was played to the composer by the violinist Willy Hess and his pupils.
The tranquil principal theme of the opening Allegro moderato
is entrusted to the first viola, continued by the first violin and leadingto a second subject of more forceful contour. The central development of thisbroadly sonata-form movement returns at first to the mood of the opening, withother earlier material explored before a suggested return of the first theme,postponed until its final return in a more grandiose form, after a unisonclimax, as in Mendelssohn's Octet. The slow movement almost seems to recallSchumann's Piano Quintet