Mendelssohn composed his Octet for strings in 1825 soon after his family had moved into a large, imposing house in the Leipzigerstrasse on the outskirts of Berlin. In the extensive grounds was a garden house which contained a room large enough to seat a sizeable audience for the family’s Sunday morning concerts. It was at these gatherings that the young Felix gained much of his musical education, both as a listener and performer. As well as the piano he also played the violin and the viola and regularly took part in performances of the several string symphonies he had already composed. It was, no doubt, the experience of writing these symphonies that enabled him to produce so effortlessly at the remarkably early age of sixteen as perfect a work as his Octet. Mendelssohn’s achievement was all the more amazing as there was hardly any precedent in chamber music for a composition of this kind. There was the first of the double quartets of Louis Spohr (composed in 1823), but in this work, as the name implies, the instruments were treated as two distinct string quartets, balancing and answering each other. There had also been Beethoven’s Septet, Opus 20, first performed in 1800, and Schubert’s Octet of 1824, but these involved wind instruments as well as strings. Mendelssohn, however, knew what he wanted and left careful instructions in the score: ‘This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasised than is usual in pieces of this kind’.
Mendelssohn not only dedicated the Octet to his revered violin teacher Eduard Rietz, elder brother of Bargiel’s composition teacher Julius Rietz, but also gave it to him as a birthday present. He obviously had his teacher in mind when he wrote the soaring violin phrases at the beginning of the first movement. The Scherzo was inspired by some lines from the ‘Walpurgis Night’ scene in Goethe’s Faust. According to his sister Fanny, Mendelssohn intended the Scherzo to be played ‘staccato and pianissimo’ for ‘everything is new and strange, yet at the same time utterly persuasive and enchanting. One feels very near to the world of spirits, lifted into the air, half inclined to snatch up a broomstick and follow the aerial procession. At the end the first violin takes flight, light as a feather—and all is blown away’. The Scherzo theme reappears briefly in the Finale and is skilfully woven into the texture, after which the Finale’s other motifs are recalled and combined together.
from notes by Peter Avis © 2000