Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 8

Notes by Christopher H. Gibbs, Artistic Codirector of the Bard Music Festival

In his earliest compositions, of which he wrote more than 100 between the ages of 11 and 14, the young Felix Mendelssohn confronted the Baroque and Classical past while fostering a Romantic sensibility. He was the 19th century’s greatest musical prodigy. At age 16 Mendelssohn wrote his magnificent Octet for Strings and the next year the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, presenting Europe with precocious gifts not seen since Mozart’s a half century before. Yet even earlier, before these teenage miracles, Mendelssohn composed 12 complete string symphonies. (He would go on to compose five symphonies for full orchestra.)

His principal teacher was Carl Friedrich Zelter, friend and musical advisor to Goethe, the greatest writer of the time, who had heard the young Mozart perform and found that Mendelssohn’s gifts “bordered on the miraculous” and thought his compositions showed perhaps even greater promise due to the “many more independent thoughts.” Zelter harbored a special passion for J. S. Bach and introduced his student to the music of the Baroque masters, as well as to that of Bach’s formidable son Carl Philipp Emanuel.

Mendelssohn composed the first five of his string symphonies in 1821 at age 12 and performed them with string quartet in his family’s domestic Sunday musicales, leading from the piano. (He would play along with the bass line and improvise harmonies that would normally be filled in by wind and brass instruments.) In 7 November of the next year he wrote the most ambitious of them, No. 8 in D Major, which we hear today, finishing it at age 13 years, 9 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days. He seems to have particularly valued this symphony because he immediately made a slightly different version for full orchestra. In addition to the domestic readings, the Eighth Symphony was also given successful public performances, although it was not published until 1965.

By the 1820s string symphonies were an old-fashioned genre that Zelter nonetheless encouraged his student to cultivate. Symphony No. 8 combines features associated with Baroque concerto grossos with more recent experiments by C. P. E. Bach. In this case, Mendelssohn looks most specifically to Mozart, notably the Magic Flute and the composer’s final symphony. The symphony begins with a slow and somber introduction (Adagio e grave) that contrasts dramatically with the fast and cheerful bulk of the movement (Allegro). Occasional solo turns for violin and cello point to the legacy of the Baroque concerto grosso, as does the spinning out of what is basically a monothematic principal idea and a borrowed motive from the Magic Flute Overture. The following Adagio is scored for divided lower strings (violas in three parts, cellos, and double basses) and starts as a dark lament before becoming more songful. The third movement Menuetto displays a Haydnesque wit in its polite outer sections that contrasts with a presto Trio section in the middle. The intense finale (Allegro molto) is where Mendelssohn most closely follows the model of the final movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, which was perhaps the greatest contrapuntal tour de force since J. S. Bach. Like Mozart, he includes an elaborate five-part fugue, uses invertible counterpoint (themes played upside down), and near the end dazzlingly combines several motives simultaneously.