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Eight Is Enough

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Read my review today on the Washington Post Web site:

Charles T. Downey, Mendelssohn manuscript gets a period touch
Washington Post, October 21, 2009

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R. Larry Todd, Mendelssohn: A Life in Music
(Google Books preview)
The Eroica Quartet brought four of their friends to the Library of Congress on Monday night for a concert featuring Mendelssohn's E-flat String Octet. The British ensemble interprets 19th-century music according to research in historical instrument technology and playing technique. Of the three composers on the program, the 16-year-old Mendelssohn's work sounded the best under this treatment, with remarkable shading of soft dynamics served up in an infinitely varied palette of color.

Although the octet's Scherzo opened with an unsure sense of tempo among the eight players, its setting of the "Walpurgis Night Dream" in "Faust," as described by Fanny Mendelssohn, was beautifully evoked by the evaporating transparency of the instruments' sound. A somber, half-illumined quality in the second movement seemed to depict Gretchen under a halo of muted light, lending support to the hypothesis of the Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd that the "Faust" program extends to the rest of the work as well. Hearing Mendelssohn's original version of the octet, played here from the library's prized autograph manuscript, added to the sense of historical rediscovery. The manuscript even made an appearance in the lobby at intermission, outside of the display cases and with a white-gloved attendant, as if it were the Stanley Cup. [Continue reading]
Eroica Quartet and Friends
Library of Congress

Mendelssohn, Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, op. 20 (holograph score, Library of Congress -- different from published score)

Mendelssohn, String Quartets, Eroica Quartet
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Vol. 1
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Vol. 2
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Vol. 3

Prof. Todd's analysis of the Op. 20 Octet, in his splendid Mendelssohn biography (pp. 148-53), is worthwhile reading. While admitting that it is pure speculation, beyond Fanny Mendelssohn's story about the scherzo being her brother's depiction of the Walpurgis Night Dream (crickets, frogs, buzzing flies, mosquitoes, magical soap-bubble bagpipe and all), Todd offers a compelling Faustian reading of the entire octet. The demanding first violin part, created for the violin virtuoso Eduard Rietz (who was also Felix's violin teacher), incarnates the ambitious, vain Faust, and the four movements are all drawn from the first part of Goethe's masterpiece (all that Mendelssohn, or anyone else, knew of the story at that point, of course).

There was no room in the review to mention the performers' agitated, bellicose performance of the last movement, the celebrated fugue fused with a sonata-rondo form that Todd describes as the conflict for Gretchen's soul. Once you have read Todd's analysis it is impossible not to hear the fourth movement's third theme, the one in half-notes, as a Handel quotation (sol-do-mi-la-do-fa-mi-re-do, adapted from Messiah's Hallelujah chorus, the melody that goes with the words "And he shall reign for ever and ever"). As Todd puts it, in the fourth movement's final section "the music of the scherzo briefly intrudes as a fourth subject, before being symbolically vanquished by the Handelian subject, triumphantly reintroduced over a massive pedal point" (p. 152). That is exactly what happens at the end of the octet, and to hear it as the cosmic battle for Gretchen's soul is an eye-opener.

I was very sorry to have to miss the pre-concert presentation by Prof. Clive Brown, a prominent scholar from the University of Leeds who is a specialist on the music of Louis Spohr, but I have not been well the past several days. If anyone heard his talk at the Library of Congress and would like to let us know something about what he said, the comment space is at your disposal.

1 comment:

jfl said...

I think Goethe might have read "Faust" to Mendelssohn himself. He certainly took to the young chap on his several visits.