While it can hardly be denied that Mendelssohn is the least forward-looking of the important Romantics, practicing a certain Classical formalism in his quartets rather than the emotional outpourings and stretching of formal boundaries of his contemporaries, passion and virtuosity are, as previously noted, hardly lacking. Least of all in the three quartets of Op. 44, of which that published as “No. 2” was actually the first in order of composition – in the fall of 1837 – and was, like its two opus mates dedicated to “His Royal Highness, the Prince of Sweden.” All three quartets of Op. 44 were written specifically for performance by the string quartet founded and led by Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the Mendelssohn-directed Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and dedicatee of the composer’s great E-minor Violin Concerto.
In March of 1837 Felix married Cecile Jeanrenaud and worked on this first Quartet of Op. 44 during their honeymoon in the Black Forest, completing the work in mid-June. The composer dispenses with a slow introduction, getting us immediately into the action of this most substantial – in size and emotion – movement, with the main melodic subject rising over an agitated accompaniment. The E-minor Violin Concerto, to follow in 1844, is foreshadowed in the first violin’s moody theme in the same key. The second movement is the not-unexpected fast scherzo, those scampering elves again – it wouldn’t be Mendelssohn without them – yet he never repeats himself melodically when in this vein, from one work to another. The slow, sweetly sentimental third movement is in the composer’s most fetching “Song Without Words” (solo piano pieces played in every middle-class home in mid-century Europe) style.
The sonata-rondo finale is alternatingly lush and tersely rhythmical, a panoply of concertante writing for the four instruments (notwithstanding solo excursions by the first violin) with thematic links to the Quartet’s opening movement.
Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.