What's So Wrong with Mendelssohn's op.44?

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Mendelssohn, Schumann

Purely as an aside, I just noticed on television that the American Express ad touting their business credit card, a spot that features the “small business owner next door” has replaced its former background music, the exhilarating scherzo from Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” symphony, with some inane techno-pop.  What does it mean? Nothing.  But you can no longer get your Mendelssohn fix by sitting in front of the idiot box!

In Paul Griffith’s generally admirable book, The String Quartet, a History, he makes a revealing point.  He discusses Mendelssohn’s op. 44 quartets in a rather superficial way (but of course the book is a survey), essentially criticizing the works as a step backward following the great a minor quartet, op. 13, which he acknowleges as the “…one masterpiece that slipped through…”, referring to the not-so-great aesthetic milieu for the quartet between Beethoven and Brahms.  That’s alright, but I’d prefer a discussion about op. 44’s considerable intrinsic musical merits.  Critics and historians seem to be obliged to force musical history into a progressive narrative.  I’m frequently guilty of this, myself.  But by any reasonable standard, op. 44 is a great musical achievement; and every piece can’t be the Ninth Symphony. 

Great repertories, such as the mature work of Mendelssohn, the mature work of Hindemith, the mature work of Richard Strauss, almost anything by Rachmaninov, are slighted again and again by the imposition of this progressive narrative on musical history.  What’s more old fashioned now, I ask you, Pierrot Lunaire or the Rachmaninov Etudes Tableaux?  And I say this as a committed supporter of the aspirations of the so-called “avant garde”; at least where these aspirations are coupled with craftsmanship and sincerity, and as opposed to those composers who attempt facilely to gain a public by making their scores relevant, or as opposed especially to those composers who cynically employ the resources of the past without having been trained in the techniques of the past. 

But the point that got me was Griffith’s speculation that Robert Schumann refrained from making a public criticism of Mendessohn’s op. 44 “perhaps out of tact”.  What? Backward looking or not, op. 44 is a significant technical achievement, well beyond Schumann’s technique, which is essentially proven in Schumann’s op. 41 cycle, which sports some charming and indeed expressive moments, but which feels like a work Schumann concocted to establish his classically formal bona fides.  And Griffith makes the great point that Schumann’s sonata forms in op. 41 are more “textbook” than anything found in the Classical masters, whose forms are much more adapted to the musical materials they are using.

And Schumann’s criticisms in his Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik are generally more enthusiastic than tactful.  By the way, I’m not saying that Schumann may not ultimately be a greater composer than Mendelssohn;  works like Dichterliebe and the Phantasie, op. 17 strike a deeper chord, perhaps than Mendelssohn is able to do.  But when it comes to putting the dots and hooks of a score together in a professional way, Mendelssohn wins by, to borrow a term from pugilism, a TKO.  Schumann himself admitted this somewhere, saying he could study with Mendelssohn for years, and still have more to learn.