You Don't Have to Start at the Beginning: Mendelssohn and Beethoven

Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13, written at the age of 18, and his String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 12, written at the age of 20, are at once the most knowlegeable glosses on Beethoven in existence and yet at the same time deeply original works.  Beethoven’s late style was not exactly terra incognita for the early romantics, but middle period  works, especially the Fifth Symphony, exerted much more influence, generally.  Mendelssohn is the exception.  As he comments himself, “You don’t have to start at the beginning…”.  Early Mendelssohn bends back only a year or two to embrace late Beethoven.  These quartets are from 1827 and 1829, and therefore can properly be regarded as a sort of continuation of late Beethoven rather than works with a retrospective orientation.  Consider a wildly different repertory that looks back to late Beethoven, the Rochberg quartets, especially the “Beethoven”  movement in the Third, and you will understand the difference between the creator and the curator.  

Mendelssohn was amused, and possibly flattered, when an auditeur of his a-minor quartet mistook the piece as having been written by Beethoven.  Mendelssohn took all sorts of Beethoven works as models for these quartets:  The “Harp” Quartet, the Quartet Serioso, the a-minor quartet, Op. 132, the “Tempest” piano sonata, the “Les Adieu” piano sonata, the F-Major quartet, op. 135, especially the “Muss es sein” idea, which Mendelssohn balances with his own “Ist es wahr” quotation from his own song, “Frage” which is actually printed in its entirety in my score.  But Mendelssohn doesn’t quote! He absorbs and sublimates.  Those who know and love the late Beethoven quartets can only marvel at the profundity and originality of Mendelssohn’s ability in extending this most personal of styles. 

Mendelssohn’s counterpoint is breath-taking.  Effortlessly elegant, flexible, natural and eloquent, contrapuntal textures have rarely been such a joy, as opposed to a sort of chore to listen to. 

Mendelssohn doesn’t need to take his scherzi from Beethoven, because Mendelssohn was himself a very great scherzo writer.  Both Scherzo movements in these quartets are actually archaic sounding intermezzi with scherzo music taking the middle panel of A-B-A structures.   These intermezzi are the most obvious delights in these great works.  I think they deeply influenced Brahms, as well, who has several archaic sounding movements with scherzando central panels. 

And Mendelssohn is tonally progressive.  How innovative the E-flat quartet is! movements in E-flat, g minor, B-flat, and c-minor, with a coda derived from the E-flat end of the first movement.  This is not “progressive” tonality in the sense we associate with Carl Nielsen, because the different tonalities do not directly engage each other, but it sort of points in the same direction.

Mendelssohn is always a master of the string quartet texture.  These vibrant works jump off the page.  And melodies? Take a look at the Mozartian elegance of both slow movements.  Sometimes one hears the absurd defamation that Mendelssohn is superficial.  If a composer has the right to be judged by his best work (definitely not the “Songs Without Words”!) Mendelssohn is deep.  He’s just so very, very, competent that his works never betray anything like the struggle of genesis.  M had it all, from a very young age.  A prodigy to rival Mozart, but who wrote true repertory works at an age younger than Mozart.  These quartets are winners.

Definitely not a winner, however, is Mendelssohn’s symphony, “Lobegesang”; It’s actually a 23 minute symphony yoked with a 40 minute cantata, and is a pathetic and futile attempt to be a work in the manner of Beethoven’s Ninth.  I followed the score with amazement as I heard the excellent recording by Kurt Masur with the splendid Leipzig Gewandhaus.  Amazement, because, as a thoroughly trained musician, someone who is really comfortable with reading scores accurately, and hopefully insightfully, I could find nothing wrong, and yet the work was excruciating, interminable! All the competency was there; the great, light on its feet orchestration,  the effortless counterpoint, the relative pithiness of individual sections, the mastery of choral writing, yet the work was almost unlistenable.  Maybe it’s my fault, that I wasn’t in the mood.  Maybe it’s the flat out awfulness of the text, with lines such as “Now all praise the Lord, ye who have breath…” I don’t know. 

The first symphony, in c minor, written when M was 15, is a delight.  It combines a sort of “sturm und drang” as practiced by Mozart in his g minor symphonies with a cheerful appropriation of Beethoven’s Fifth.  No where near the quality of the quartets, this is nevertheless a very charming and listenable work.

Mendelssohn: A Life in Music
by R. Larry Todd