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Digital Season: Mendelssohn String Quartet No 1

9 Feb 2024

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Mendelssohn's String Quartet No 1 is available to view free of charge for 30 days, from 7.30pm on 15 February to the same time on 16 March. You can view all content relating to the work on the event page.

Though it’s hardly a competition, of course, Felix Mendelssohn would give Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart a run for his money in the child-prodigy stakes. Mendelssohn wrote two of his best-loved pieces – the rapturous String Octet and the magical Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture – while he was still a teenager (as well as – deep breath – four piano quartets, two violin sonatas, a piano sonata, 12 string symphonies, several piano pieces and songs, and even an entire opera). That early talent is probably hardly surprising: Mendelssohn grew up in one of Berlin’s wealthiest and best-connected families, grandson of eminent philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and with the renowned banker Abraham Mendelssohn as his father. More importantly, he was surrounded as a child by some of Europe’s greatest minds across culture, philosophy, politics and more. Even revered playwright and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe counted the boy as a friend: the 72-year-old was so impressed by the 12-year-old’s musical talents that he invited him to stay for what proved a formative fortnight.

Mendelssohn might have reached the grand old age of 20 before he completed his official First String Quartet in 1829, but he’d composed several unofficial predecessors as a teenager – the very first as a 14-year-old in 1823. And there are connections between the piece and Scotland, too. Earlier in 1829 Mendelssohn had embarked on an excursion in the tradition of a Grand Tour, in which a wealthy young man completes his education by sampling the cultural highlights of Europe. Mendelssohn opted not for the traditional Grand Tour destinations of France and Italy, however, but instead for Scotland – inspired, in part, by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, which the entire Mendelssohn family adored. It was a trip that took in Edinburgh, the Borders and the Highlands, as well as the isles of Mull and Staffa, and it eventually inspired both Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and his ‘Scottish’ Symphony, No. 3.

The young man clearly had time for musical ponderings during his Scottish adventures, however, since he completed his First Quartet during his return trip from Scotland to Berlin: he marked the score ‘14 September, 1829, London’. Unlike those two orchestral pieces inspired by his trip, however, there’s little here that’s particularly Caledonian. Instead, Mendelssohn looked back to Beethoven – especially the earlier composer’s ‘Harp’ Quartet, Op. 74 – as a model, as well as gazing forward to pioneering ideas of recurring themes bringing unity to a larger work’s constituent parts.

After a reflective, sometimes plaintive slow introduction, Mendelssohn introduces the first movement’s passionate, song-like theme, whose distinctive, elegantly falling shape makes it immediately memorable. He contrasts it with more veiled, minor-mode murmurings in the movement’s central development section, which takes on a far more tormented mood – only serving to make the return of the soaring original theme sound all the more joyful. His second movement ‘Canzonetta’ has a feeling of tick-tocking elegance and quietly mischievous charm, its crisp theme overlaid on gentle pizzicato accompaniment. Its central section, however, has a charm that’s far more rustic-sounding, pitting dashing violins against bagpipe-like drones from the viola and cello.

After what sounds like a hushed hymn of thanksgiving in his slow third movement, Mendelssohn leads without a break into the dashing energy of his stormy finale. In an unexpected twist, however, he cunningly directs us back to that song-like melody from his opening movement, whose arrival leads the Quartet – perhaps surprisingly – to a quiet, somewhat introspective conclusion.

© 2023 David Kettle

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