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Can you imagine a textbook saying that Beethoven, or even Brahms, for heaven’s sake, was “extraordinarily gifted”? Of course not. That would be like saying water is wet. But when that phrase is applied to Mendelssohn, it either means 1)Mendelssohn really wasn’t that bad. His music is sort of good after all!” or, 2) Mendelssohn wasn’t really a great composer. He was just ‘exceptionally talented.’
How did Beethoven’s successors respond to his overwhelming prestige, to his inescapable influence? Mendelssohn’s three great Beethoven glosses (Piano Sonata in E Major, op. 6, String Quartets Opp. 12 and 13) are early works. Mendelssohn appears to be more concerned with Bach, Handel and Mozart in most of his latter works, maybe because Beethoven seemed like too big an elephant in the room to the mature Mendelssohn. Is it coincidence that Mendelssohn’s two indisputably great symphonies are placed outside of the Germanic (Beethovenian) orbit, in Scotland and Italy? Is the “Lobegesang” weakened because Mendelssohn is Handelian grandiose, perhaps, but not Beethovenian grandiose?
Felix Mendelssohn is the most underrated master in classical music history. Not as transcendant as Mozart, not as powerful as Beethoven, not as intimate as Schumann, not as poignant as Schubert, not as idiosyncratic as Chopin, not as quirky as Berlioz, Mendelssohn seems to fall between two stools…at least for many listeners. His technique alone qualifies him for the pantheon. And technique matters, and not just to musicians…
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.