The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (134): No kid could write this

The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (134): No kid could write this


norman lebrecht

July 27, 2020

Felx Mendelssohn was 16 when he composed the unsurpassable Octet in October 1825.



  • Jay says:

    If he were a genius he could and did…it comes through
    in spite of this dreadfully overwrought performance.

  • fflambeau says:

    It is an astonishing piece of work. I believe Goethe said FM as a youth was ahead of Mozart, whom he had also met.

  • KANANPOIKA says:

    Mendelssohn’s stunning Octet is one of the Seven Wonders of the classical music world. Don’t ask me what the other six are….

    • Alexander Hall says:

      It is an absolute little jewel of a piece, isnt it? Just what we need to lift our spirits in these dark times.

  • E says:

    Thank you, merci, vielen Dank, grazie tanto, NL!

  • Edgar Self says:

    Mendelssohn’s whole life is a wonder. Whrn he was barely adolescent, his teacher Zelter (?), an old friend of Goethe’s, took him to Weimar to meet the great man. The visit was a big success and prolongedseveral days at Goethe’s wish. The boy and Der Alte spend many hours together.

    When Mendelssohn started to play for Goethe, he interrupted tgem. “You two have prepared this. I’ll see if the boy is really musical ” and took a Mozart ms. from a locked cabinet to set before Felix, who played it off at sight, convincing Goethe and winning him over. That sealed the generational gap, and they were friends. This might have been aroud 1822 when the boy was about 13 and Der Alte 73.

  • Fiddlist says:

    The second theme of the first movement is quite possibly the most uninventive, insipid melody ever written.

    • Novagerio says:

      Fiddlist: Go and fiddle in another street corner, dude.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      That, sir, is an insult to Charles de Beriot’s immortal Air varie (in other words, I cannot agree).

      One youthful piece that Herbie G does not list, but it warrants attention, is the Sextet for Piano, two violas (!), cello and bass. It was given the opus no. 110 after the composer’s death and for that reason perhaps suffers the bias against Mendelssohn’s “late” works but it was actually composed before the Octet.

      It is a true chamber music piece but in many passages could also be regarded as a chamber concerto for violin with an unusually “dark” little orchestra since the violas spend quite a bit of their time in their lower and most beautiful register. Mendelssohn had an inspired idea – to bring first movement themes back for a return visit in the busy and energetic finale, and obviously liked the idea well enough to do it again in the Octet, to magical effect.

      The only recording I have and thus know is an aged LP on the once-wonderful “MGM” (yes the movie studio company!) label (E 3107 if you want to search for it), this with Menahem Pressler and members of the Daniel Guilet quartet, with Nathan Gordon (of the Kroll Quartet) on viola and Philip Sklar (NBC Symphony) on bass. Guilet was one of my violin teacher’s teachers.

      • Edgar Self says:

        David Nelson: One of your best recent posts among many,– stylish, elegant, informative, gratefully read, enjoyed , and learned from Long may you continue to grace this forum. I trust you can still recognize envy when you hear it?

        • David K. Nelson says:

          Thank you so much Edgar but let it also be noted that my post neglected to mention that the Sextet also has a violin part (I listed five instruments – for a sextet – which suggests weakness in my math, my Latin, or my proofreading before I hit “submit”). Hopefully the presence of an important violin part was implicit in my description of the piece.

      • Dan oren says:

        The sextet has been reissued by DOREMI (Menahem Pressler vol I) in 2010. Lovely piece!

      • Herbie G says:

        Yes, quite so David! I have a couple of those old MGM LPs too; that shows my age! The Mendelssohn Sextet is marvellous stuff, which I first encountered in a Vox box along with the three wonderful early piano quartets and the two string quintets of later vintage. All of these works surely deserve to be performed more often. There’s a splendid performance of the Sextet on Decca Eloquence, by the Vienna Octet; it’s a two-disc reissue of recordings made in the 1970s and has other rarities by Conrdin Kreutzer, Berwald, Borodin (his piano quintet) and Rimsky’s quintet too. I’d recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who is looking to go off the beaten track; all the works are delightful.

        Guilet was a hero of mine; apart from being the leader of his eponymous string quartet, he was, of course, a founder member of the legendary Beaux Arts trio. As for the Guilet Quartet, they first came to my attention as a teenager, having made the first recordings, probably in the mid-1950s, of Arriaga’s three string quartets – outstanding performances! Now there’s a child prodigy, nay genius; possibly the greatest of them all.

        Finally, speaking of Vox, they had some marvellous performers on their lists – early Brendel, the Kohon Quartet, Walter Klien and many more, and the recordings were often superb in terms of sound and performance. Some of these have been issued on CD but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. They surely deserve re-issue and I have just discovered that the company was started by one George Mendelssohn-Bartholdy! The catalogue was, it seems, acquired by a company called Moss Music Group – what are they doing with it?

        • Dan oren says:

          Mendelssohn, yes, not sure about the Bartholdy. There’s a famous story about Klemperer (also a Vox artist) and Mendelssohn going to a record shop in Vienna. K. Insisted on getting his recording of Beethoven’s 5th, but it wasn’t available. The salesman asked why he absolutely wanted this specific recording: because I am Klemperer replied K. Oh sure said the salesman, and I suppose your friend here is Beethoven?
          No, I am Mendelssohn….

    • Bruce says:

      You are free to express your opinion, and others are free to express theirs. So go right ahead. Be yourself 🙂

      …I am reminded, somehow, of the comment on a previous thread (I think the topic was whether the Missa Solemnis was the worst Mass ever written, or if it was merely Beethoven’s worst composition), to the effect that “there are cases where it is not the music that is on trial, but the audience.”

  • Herbie G says:

    There’s always one bird who flies over your party and poops into your food, isn’t there? If that’s insipid, then let’s have more of it! And there is plenty more available from well before the Octet which, beside these early works, could now be termed ‘middle-period’ Mendelssohn! The huge list of works that he wrote between the ages of 11 and 16 includes six operas, twelve symphonies for string orchestra, a symphonic movement, two concertos for two pianos, a violin concerto (not to be confused with the famous one), a concerto for piano and strings, one for violin, piano and strings, a piano trio (written at the age of 11 – his earliest work as far as I know), an unnumbered string quartet, organ music, and songs, three piano quartets, many piano pieces, a clarinet sonata and one for viola.

    Most of these works were probably performed privately in the Mendelssohn’s family home and thereafter remained unpublished and unknown for about a century after Mendelssohn’s death. The first one to be unearthed for recording was the early D minor violin concerto, in an American performance by Menuhin and the RCA Victor Orchestra, dating from 1952. Since the 1970s there’s been a steady stream of recordings and now one can hear virtually all of these works in excellent performances. They support the suggestion that Mendelssohn was even more of a child genius than Mozart. The 12 string symphonies, all written between the ages of 12 and 14, show a stylistic progression from Handelian neo-baroque to the mature Mendelssohn; I’d cite in evidence No. 9 in C minor – full of passion and in my opinion worthy to stand alongside the Octet both in craftmanship and inspiration. They are among the most sipid works I have ever heard.

  • wasteland says:

    Schumann and Mendelssohn, the mystery of troubled depth that rises above privileged facility.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Mozart, Mendelssohn and Korngold were the only teenage composers who wrote great music that has remained in the repertoire. Astonishing genius. And if a certain Herr Hitler had had his way, the last two would never be heard. With such evil going on in today’s world, the Octet slaps you in the face and reminds you of what heights humans can achieve.

    • Edgar Self says:

      A good starting list, Cubby. I nominate yoimg Shostakovich, whose first symphony written at 19 qualifies and is already a masterwork, even containing an early variant of his DDS monogram in its ominously insistent timpani solo, Do Do Do D Es in C minor and is utterly unlike anything heard before, though tonal. no fault to these ears. I can’t explain ghe thfice repeated Do, but there is no douby in my mind of its ingnded signatory use.

      After conducting its premiere, Nikolai Malko told his diary “Today I made the acquaintance of a great new composer.” 0

      Chopin, Arriaga, Lekeu, Lili Boulanger and Schubert await enshrinement, some not quite fulfilling repertoire status., Pitifully, only one of them had more than thirteen years left, several only two or three, and none saw 4.0.

      • fflambeau says:

        Lots of very gifted composers began young. Alan Hovhaness wrote his first composition at the age of 4. Aaron Copland at the age of 8. Meanwhile, The music critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote of Camille Saint-Saëns “that he was the most remarkable child prodigy in history, and that includes Mozart.” F. Liszt’s Diabolical variations, meanwhile, was written when he was 13.