Felix Mendelssohn (last name sometimes hyphenated with “-Barthody”, a move done by his father to sidestep anti-Semitism), was a child wunderkind, and the only composer comparable to Mozart in terms of his extraordinary abilities. He reached a level of creative maturity while he was still a kid – he made his piano debut at age nine, and his composing debut at ten. He had the best music and theory teachers, and learned a great deal about JS Bach and how to write a fugue. By age 12 Felix had written some nine fugues (which are incredibly difficult to write – take the same melody in different voices, and layer it over itself several times over, without it sounding like a jumble), five symphonies for strings, two operas, and a trove of smaller pieces. As he grew into his adult years, he had one career success after another.
Mendelssohn didn’t have the strongest constitution, and the death of his parents, then the unexpected passing of his beloved sister Fanny, caused him enough distress that he passed away at age 38, only two years older than Mozart at his time of death. As if he knew he’d have a short life, Mendelssohn made the most of his time on earth with his talent and work ethic; his outpouring of music, classical in style with an elegant touch of Romanticism, was astonishing.
The Octet for Strings will make anybody regret they didn’t stick with their violin, viola, or cello lessons. The last movement (“Presto” – which means “super zippy”) is a stunning fugue that builds relentless momentum, with hypnotic moments when all bows move in unison, playing a jagged theme. It peaks with “the dramatic high” that Mendelssohn is so good at, and after being perched on the edge of your seat, you’ll collapse back with happy exhaustion and relief, the music is that good. Another thing that makes this piece rock along is the fact you rarely hear chamber music in this configuration of two string quartets together, or eight soloists. So there’s quite the blending of new energies together every time you hear it.
Check out the last movement of the Oct performed at the Eighth International Classical Music Festival of Cyclades in 2008.
Felix Mendelssohn was born February 3, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany, and died November 4, 1847, in Leipzig. Robert Schumann was one of the pallbearers.