Sunday, February 23, 2020

Two Quartets by Two Mendelssohn Siblings

1829 sketch of Fanny Mendelssohn by her future husband Wilhelm Hensel (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Yesterday afternoon the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ) brought their Beyond Beethoven: Quartets from the Next Generation program to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. The program was devoted to the two best known children of Abraham Mendelssohn, Fanny and her younger brother Felix. The removal of Georges Onslow from the previously announced program meant that only two quartets were performed, separated by a brief intermission along with commentary by violist Anthony Martin. The program began with Fanny’s only quartet, composed in the key of E-flat major in 1834. This was followed by Felix’s Opus 80 quartet in F minor, an intense composition reflecting his profound grief at the death of this sister in 1847. (Felix himself would die only months after completing this quartet.)

Most of Fanny’s music was not published in her lifetime. As Martin explained, publication would have established her as a professional musician, which her father would not allow. Her Wikipedia page includes the following sentence from a latter that Abraham wrote to Fanny in 1820:
Music will perhaps become his [i.e. Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.
In 1829 Fanny married the painter Wilhelm Hensel, who was far more supportive of Fanny’s creative endeavors. However, her marital duties left her little time for composition.

We should be fortunate that she had enough time to compose her only string quartet. It is imaginative in any number of ways, beginning with the overall layout of the tempi of its four movements. The Adagio ma non troppo suggests an introduction to a sonata-allegro structure, which never actually emerges; and Fanny definitely takes her own sweet time in establishing E-flat major as the key. The Allegretto scherzo in the second movement abounds with irresistibly engaging eccentricities. The following Romanze provides the slow tempo with its proper place, leading up to an elegantly conceived Allegro molto vivace conclusion.

Given the context in which Felix composed Opus 80, I found myself wondering if he chose F minor because it was the key of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 95 quartet, given the name “Serioso.” Clearly, Felix was going for serious rhetorical stances, even if that adjective is the only suggestion of a connection to Beethoven. NEQ followed the dark shades of that rhetoric through all four of the quartet’s movements, consistently reflecting the “seriousness” of tone without succumbing to excessive emoting.

As always, the NEQ violinists alternated in the first chair position. Kati Kyme led Fanny’s quartet, and Lisa Weiss led Felix’s. Fanny provided cellist William Skeen with several intriguing passages that suggested novel approaches to technique beyond those demanded by Beethoven. Similarly, the viola was anything but a secondary instrument in both of these quartets; and Fanny’s score provided Martin with any number of opportunities to take the lead.

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