the time Mendelssohn came to write the Octet at the advanced age of 16, he had
already composed five operas, the thirteen string symphonies, three piano
quartets, a string quartet, a piano sextet and a handful of trios and sonatas.
Goethe was a family friend and he knew Weber, Moscheles, Hummel, Cherubini,
Rossini, Meyerbeer and Spontini. Already the preious year his teacher, Carl
Zelter, had pronounced him no longer an
apprentice but an independent member of the brotherhood of musicians.
massive first movement is built on a symphonic scale with the form shifting
between violin concerto and a straightforward string ensemble. The movement is
dominated by the all-pervasive opening theme played by the first violin over a
shimmering accompaniment in the other strings. Subsidiary ideas include a
question and answer pair of phrases and there is a striding rhythmic figure
which is particularly effective in its pizzicato form, and when treated
contrapuntally with a window-shaking bass line.
enormous development section is seriously infected by the opening figure but
eventually a long crescendo builds out of the rhythmic pizzicato culminating in
tutti chords that fade into an impressively controlled piano. This leads to a
hurtling climax that rockets into the recapitulation, which in turn is full of
contrapuntal fireworks. The coda allows a final ecstatic rendering of the main
Andante continues to explore the exciting sonorities offered by this
combination of instruments. It is clear from both these movements that
Mendelssohn both worshipped Mozart and emulated him. The colouring is less
orchestral than in the first movement and is beautifully graded, but without
any striking melody.
Scherzo is best described by his sister Fanny: The whole piece is to be played staccato and pianissimo, the
tremulandos coming in now and then, the trills passing away with the quickness
of lighting; everything new and strange, and at the same time most insinuating
and pleasing, one feels so near the world of spirits carried away in the air...
At the end the first violin takes a flight with feather-like lightness, and...
all has vanished.
finale is introduced in a most undignified manner by the second cello, letting
the cork out of the champagne, and the resulting effervescent presto exploits
the flamboyant possibilities of the eight parts to the full. There are even two
quick quotes of the Scherzo Walpurgisnacht theme among the helter-skelter,
before the sixteen year old composer builds to a barn-storming finish