First page of the holograph manuscript of Mendelssohn's Octet (1825). Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.
While the genre of the string quartet -- consisting of two violins, one viola and one 'cello -- developed slowly over the second half of the eighteenth century, it had, by the turn of the nineteenth century, achieved such a wide popularity as to be regarded as the vehicle par excellence of both chamber music and "modern" music of the era. The string quartet's repertoire was then still rather limited, however, despite the contributions of dozens of composers to satisfy audiences' demands for works in this new medium. The unusual (for the time) instrumentation of Mendelssohn's Octet (1825), scored for four violins, two violas and two cellos -- in essence, a double string quartet -- is therefore as unexpected as it is brilliantly innovative.
While it has been assumed that the Octet's novel instrumentation may have been inspired by a nearly contemporary work, the Double Quartet in D minor, op. 65 (1823) by German composer Louis Spohr (1784-1859), which uses the same combination of strings as in Mendelssohn's Octet, Spohr's approach to scoring his work is more "antiphonal" in conception: that is, the two relatively independent quartets play off each other, and at other times in unison, as a single instrumental group. Spohr himself compared his own Double Quartet to "two choirs," and also remarked that Mendelssohn's approach to scoring the Octetwas a more "collaborative" effort for all eight instruments used in the work. Unlike Spohr's work, Mendelssohn explores the full range of expressive and textural resources available to this particular combination of instruments, a perspective that is larger in scope -- more "symphonic" in conception -- than that usually encountered for the smaller scale of chamber music. More closely aligned with the expressive style of emerging musical Romanticism than with the established Classicism of the Berlin Singakademie and to the teachings of his musical mentor, Carl Friedrich Zelter, the sixteen-year old Mendelssohn's creative voice had attained a level of maturity and invention that exceeded that of any prodigy before him, including Mozart.
The most astonishing fact about the composition of the Octet is not that it was written by someone of such a young age, but that such a personal and mature musical language is so evident throughout the work -- no small achievement for a composer of any age. While the work's light, vivacious mood and the organic development of its musical content would seem to indicate that the work was composed in a spontaneous burst of creativity, we do know that the work underwent significant changes before, and even after, its initial publication in 1832, involving painstaking work on the composer's part. It is therefore quite amazing that the work appears to have lost none of its vigor in the process. (This process of revising his works became a lifelong obsession for Mendelssohn, much to the frustration of his publishers!)
Mendelssohn began the composition of the Octet, the first indisputable masterpiece of his artistic maturity, in the autumn of 1825. The work was completed on October 15, 1825, two days before the composer presented the autograph score as a birthday present to his violin teacher, Eduard Rietz. Rietz returned his student's compliment by copying out instrumental parts by hand which were used in the work's first performance. From contemporary accounts of those in attendance at that performance, the Octetapparently delighted and amazed its audience, a reaction that this work has been evoking ever since.
As mentioned above, Mendelssohn's personal aesthetic conformed ideally to the musical tastes of the era, which were moving from a "Classical" style (that of Mozart, Haydn, etc.) to a more "Romantic" one (espoused by Beethoven, and later by Brahms, Mahler, etc.). The composer did, however, introduce a particular element into the musical language of his time, the evocation of an enchanted, ethereal world of fairies and other benevolent spirits, the inspiration for which likely derived from his reading of the works of William Shakespeare, as well as of German poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), with whom Mendelssohn was personally acquainted. A verse from the first part of Goethe's lyric poem Faust (1775-1808), in fact, is alleged to have inspired the Scherzo movement from the Octet:
Wisps of cloud and mist
Are lit from above
Breeze in the foliage and wind in the reeds
And all is scattered.
The composer's sister Fanny wrote that Mendelssohn once revealed his vision of the Scherzo movement to her: that "the whole piece is to be played staccato and pianissimo... the trills passing away with the quickness of lightning... one feels so near to the world of spirits, carried away in the air, half inclined to snatch up a broomstick and follow the aerial procession... and at the end, ...all has vanished." The mood of the Scherzo movement from the Octet, to which Mendelssohn himself attached special importance (he even arranged the movement for full orchestra in about 1829), was recreated the following year in his Midsummer Night's Dream overture, based on Shakespeare's play of the same name, and depicting the fleeting twilit moments when the world of humans meets that of the spirits.
The holograph manuscript score of the Octet is undoubtedly the most significant treasure within the Library of Congress's holdings of material related to Mendelssohn. Previously owned by the music publishing firm Musikbibliothek Peters (to which its original owner, Rietz, entrusted it), it was only upon its purchase by the Library in 1951, with funds generously provided by philanthropist Gertrude Clarke Whittall, that the score was first made accessible for public examination. The manuscript, representing Mendelssohn's initial concept of the work, contains a number of significant markings and musical content that were subsequently excised from the work's first publication in 1848. Considering the composer's convention of revising his works at least once, if not multiple times, and his tendency to destroy early drafts or versions of them, the original manuscript of the Octet presents the researcher with a unique insight into the creative process of the young genius. Particularly noteworthy are the manuscript's front flyleaf, which bears Rietz's signature, and the score's first page, on the upper right corner of which, in Mendelssohn's hand, are the letters "L. e. g. G." -- an abbreviation of the German Lass es geling, Gott ("Let it succeed, God!").
Before his premature death at age thirty-eight, Felix Mendelssohn was to compose five symphonies, numerous other orchestral, stage and chamber works, and literally hundreds of vocal works ranging from solo song to large scale choral works (such as the popular oratorio Elijah of 1836, based on the Biblical account of the prophet's life). The Octet, however, holds a unique place among Mendelssohn's works as one of the first major successes for its composer. From the almost minimalist unison textures of the work's Scherzo, to the eight-part fugato of its Finale, Mendelssohn created a masterwork which German composer and violinist Louis Spohr praised as "quite another kind of art."