George Enescu (1881-1955) was a child prodigy who began playing violin at age four and composing at five. He left his native Romania at seven, studying first in Vienna and then at the illustrious Paris Conservatoire, where he trained under Massenet and Fauré. Not long after he graduated, the 18-year-old Enescu completed the Octet for Strings in C Major (Op. 7), a wildly ambitious work that packed the heft of a symphony into a single composite movement scored for two string quartets.
The Octet’s opening melody, voiced in octaves over a cello drone, establishes the broad dimensions and Romanian flavor of the first main section. The second part, labeled Très fougueux (“Very fiery”), fills the function of a scherzo, and it also establishes this score’s cyclical nature when it brings back a variant of that very first theme. Another take on that unifying motive begins the slow third section, heard this time through the darkened tone of mutes. A quivering transitional passage, once again derived from that recurring theme, links to the fast conclusion, which settles into the steady three-beat pulse of a waltz.
Growing up in a privileged family of bankers in Berlin, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) often played chamber music at home with the best young musicians in the city. Piano was his primary instrument, but he could comfortably handle violin and viola parts as well, thanks to his years of study with Eduard Rietz, a prodigy who became the concertmaster of the Berlin court orchestra at 17.
In 1825, the 16-year-old Mendelssohn gave his friend and teacher a most precious birthday present: the Octet for Strings (Op. 20). The German composer Louis Spohr had published a work for two string quartets earlier that year, and Mendelssohn might have been aware of it, but his approach in the Octet was wholly original, treating it as one unified ensemble instead of two opposing groups. The orchestral grandeur of the music is apparent from the outset, with the first violinist rising over a saturated bed of slurred tremolos and pulsing off-beats. It would be easy for this profusion of textures to get messy and clouded, but Mendelssohn’s lucid orchestration only intensifies the deft progress through the large sonata form, a structure dispatched with the fluidity of Bach and the rigor of Beethoven.
To counter the robust first movement, the Andante establishes a consoling tone, its sparing themes steeped in old church harmonies and resonant drones. For the lighter-than-air Scherzo, which must be played “always pianissimo and staccato,” Mendelssohn found inspiration in a dreamy episode from Goethe’s Faust. Some of that music crops up again in the manic finale, a contrapuntal wonder made possible by the young composer’s years of practice in the neglected art of fugue writing.
© 2019 Aaron Grad.
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