As soon as Felix Mendelssohn passed away in 1847 at the age of 38, the reception of his music was dictated by ideologies that increasingly lost touch with his actual place in 19th century music history. His music was at first lionized, particularly in Victorian England, as a romanticized reading of classical styles. As German nationalism further glorified (what was perceived to be) the masculine heroism and drama of Beethoven and Wagner, Mendelssohn increasingly came under attack as a lightweight composer lacking depth and muscle. This was furthered by Wagner’s racist, anti-Semitic attacks, claiming Mendelssohn “has shown us that a Jew can possess the richest measure of specific talents, the most refined and varied culture, the loftiest, most tender sense of honor, without even once through all these advantages being able to bring forth in us that profound, heart-and-soul searching effect we expect from music.” While Mendelssohn’s music continued to be performed in German lands throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wagner’s disgusting attitudes held sway over public opinion, culminating with the Nazi decree banning performances of his music during the Third Reich.
Current scholarship addresses the complicated reception history of Mendelssohn and his works, lending current audiences and readers a more factual and analytical view of Mendelssohn’s music and his role in shaping musical trends in the early 19th century. But the title of this little article refers to more than the various revisionist histories that have been applied to Mendelssohn. The composer’s Octet for Strings, heard on NOVA this Sunday (10/26/2014), exists in two very different versions: the manuscript of 1825 and the heavily revised version prepared for the premiere in 1833. The subject to follow gives us a brief glimpse of Mendelssohn revising Mendelssohn.
Mendelssohn composed his Octet in E-flat Major, opus 20 quickly during the autumn months of 1825, dating the completion of his manuscript October 15. The Octet represents the crowning achievement of his earliest efforts; composed at the age of 16, he had by this point written over 100 works spanning a wide range of genres including symphonies, concerti, chamber music, lieder, religious music, and operas. The undeniable genius exhibited during Mendelssohn’s early teens was guided by the instruction of Carl F. Zelter, a noted pedagogue with an unusual (for the period) taste for historical music. Zelter’s influence can be heard both in Mendelssohn’s penchant for the classical textures and forms of Mozart and early Beethoven as well as in his love of counterpoint and the fugal models of J. S. Bach.
It is worth noting that the Octet that we perform and hear today is one that differs considerably from the 1825 manuscript. When preparing the work for its public premiere of 1833 in Leipzig, Mendelssohn subjected his the work to major and sweeping revisions that tightened the narrative and cut large swaths of material. Classical models as were taught by Zelter were invariably stiff and formulaic. While the exuberant, youthful character of the Octet still dominates the tone of the original manuscript version, the affect is at times dulled by an almost “paint-by-numbers” predictability to the order and repetition of the themes.
Mendelssohn’s 1833 revisions reflect the maturity and imagination of a more developed composer. No longer a student, the 24-year-old Mendelssohn found fault with the squareness of his earlier design. The original version contains predictable sequences of thematic material to which the composer later introduced a certain amount of volatility by cutting repetitive passages and reordering material. Mendelssohn’s reconsiderations here represent his evolving perception of classical forms as he came to embrace a more elastic, irregular, and ultimately more Romantic approach to creating large forms.