Saturday, 7 January 2012

Mendelssohn: In Mourning

Felix Mendelssohn's six string quartets are a fascinating set of pieces and I hope to explore each of them at some stage, but I want to start at the very end with his final quartet, the String Quartet No.6 in F minor, Op.80, because I think this fine, passionate work shows a number of things, namely (a) that Felix was a great writer of string quartets, (b) there was no falling-off in quality towards the end of his short life and (c) that Mendelssohn is far from being a lightweight. I also want to start with it because I love it. 

The work has a dark intensity that is certainly unusual in Mendelssohn's output. It was written while the composer was grieving for his sister, Fanny, who died in 1847. Felix was himself to die later the same year. Being the man he was, however, he channelled this grief through the finest workmanship. 

The shuddering tremolos that open the quartet turn the figuration of the first movement's main theme - figuration that will probably remind the listener of the composer's 'fairy scherzos' - into something foreboding, into which the first violin throws a dotted phrase (imitated by the other players) which strikes like a stab to the heart. This piercing phrase is then transformed into a poignant melody, then into a dancing figure. A passionate new theme is introduced which whirls the movement on to the tender second subject, which sings its lyrical phrases over a pulsing accompaniment. The exposition generates another poignant melody as it ends, sunk in grief. This exposition lasts only a little over two minutes but is a superb, eventful span of music.  The development section is just as gripping, revisiting all the material of the main subject group and heightening the drama whilst working the themes through various keys. It builds to a powerful climax that cries out in pain as the recapitulation steals back in ingeniously. The recapitulation contains new melodic offshoots of the main themes as counter-subjects and there is a glorious Schubert-like passage just before the return of the second subject and its companions. The coda is subjected to a fresh onslaught from the stormy material and brings the movement to a fiery close. This is wonderful string quartet writing and deserves to be considered one of the finest movements of Romantic chamber music.

As does the Scherzo. There's no slackening of intensity - or mastery - in this movement either. The main theme is agitated, with syncopations and straining modulations. Grim unison writing adds to the main section's sinister effect. When the theme returns, listen out for the furiously difficult figuration that now accompanies it. There's no light relief afforded by the Trio section either, which is a spectral dance with a sinister bass and a tune that always sounds to me like a melancholy cousin to 'Girls and Boys Come Out to Play'.

The Adagio is a deeply felt piece that prompts the melancholy thought that poor Felix's grief gave us one of his greatest, saddest, most satisfying slow movements. The composer's instinctive lyricism is released and the violin's opening phrase, with its opening sigh across a minor sixth, is unforgettable. Consolatory phrases are tempered by throbs of painful feeling and aching dissonances and the movement's climax is another cry of anguish. 

No easy consolation is offered by the Finale either. That inevitable companion of grief, anger, is present and the movement seems almost to shake with rage at times. The second subject's lyrical dialogue is but a brief respite. The development section initially screws up the tension even tighter but the quivering transition to the recapitulation hints at the possibility of resignation. The fierily-counterpointed recapitulation shows that it's not time yet for resignation though and the quartet storms to its end. 

Unquestionably a masterpiece, this quartet should be one of the best-known works of 19th Century chamber writing. That it isn't is little short of a scandal. Someone should resign over this! If you don't know it, please give it some of your time.

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