We often associate the music of Felix Mendelssohn with light, sparkling effervescence (as in the scherzos from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Octet) and a unique fusion of Romanticism with backward glances at the crystalline, contrapuntal classicism of J.S. Bach. The String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, Mendelssohn’s final composition, inhabits a shockingly different world. Completed two months before the composer’s premature death at the age of 38 at a time when he was mourning the loss of his beloved sister, Fanny, this is music filled with dark, ominous storm clouds and haunting anxiety. Mendelssohn’s lifelong friend, Julius Benedict, wrote:
It would be difficult to cite any piece of music which so completely impresses the listener with a sensation of gloomy foreboding, of anguish of mind, and of the most poetic melancholy, as does this masterly and eloquent composition.
A ghostly terror is in the air from the first trembling utterances of the first movement. Notice the jarring dissonances in the passage beginning at 4:20, where the counterpoint seems in danger of spinning out of control, momentarily. In the dynamic performance below, the audience gasps audibly as the ferocious energy of the first movement’s coda reaches the grim finality of the concluding cadence.
The jagged, demonic Allegro assai scherzo which follows provides no relief from the atmosphere of stormy turbulence. There is something disquieting about the way its final pizzicatos fade into the shadows of the night.
A solitary, descending scale in the cello sets in motion the lamenting Adagio, which develops into a soaringly passionate elegy. In the movement’s final bars, listen to the way the opening descending motive moves from one voice to another. Just as we think we’re approaching a resolution, the cello descends further and the harmony momentarily melts away.
The final movement (Finale: allegro motto) is filled with anxiety and pathos. Amid a storm of ferocious triplets, the first violin shrieks with anguish in its highest register. The resounding final cadence bring’s Mendelssohn’s Op. 80 String Quartet to a dark, tragic close.
The Schumann Quartet, based in Cologne, Germany, gave this extraordinary performance at the 11th Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2013:
- Schumann Quartet complete discography
Photograph: Storm Clouds Over Snowy Mountains In Banff National Park by William Freebilly