Program notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason (www.shavergleason.com)
Although it may seem odd to label any work created by a 28-year-old composer “mature,” it certainly happens often for Felix Mendelssohn. Several of this German prodigy’s most celebrated works came from his teenage years, so his music from this time is considered that of a seasoned, established composer. Mendelssohn composed his first two string quartets as a teenager, and they reflect the ways in which he strove to incorporate the somewhat confusing aspects of Beethoven’s late quartets into his own developing technique. By the time of his String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 44, No. 1, however, his personal style was well established. Some historians consider this quartet to follow Haydn’s models more than Beethoven, yet Mendelssohn’s deft manipulation of the classical forms for dramatic effect reveal his remarkable creativity. Op. 44, No. 1 is the first in a published set of three quartets that he composed between 1837 and 1838, but it was the last of the three to be written. He most likely gave it the privileged position because he liked it the best. In a letter he wrote to his friend and violinist Ferdinand David, he said, “I have just finished my third Quartet, in D major, and I like it very much. I hope it may please you as well. I rather think it will, since it is more spirited and seems to me likely to be more grateful to the players than the others.” Indeed, David and his string quartet gave the premiere performance in Leipzig the following February.
Mendelssohn’s professional life was nearly always filled with multiple ongoing projects; while writing this quartet, he was also working on his famous violin concerto (also intended for David), and one can hear how the first violin flourish that launches the Molto Allegro vivace has a similar boldness to the iconic solo statement that opens the concerto. That gesture—a rising arpeggio followed by loping downward leaps—recurs throughout the movement, demanding the listener’s attention at important events. The contrasting secondary theme is mysterious, as all four players creep together in close harmonies. But the opening melody reasserts itself, leading to a brilliant passage where the players overlap the gesture in rapid succession. The development section casts the melody into minor and meanders its way through unexpected harmonic areas. Again and again, the first violin tosses off the bold gesture as if to initiate the recapitulation, but it takes several attempts to set up the proper return to the original thematic material.
The second movement, Menuetto: Un poco Allegretto, is the only minuet movement in any of Mendelssohn’s string quartets; he was more likely to opt for one of his characteristically nimble scherzos. This minuet rolls along gently, with swelling phrases that take their time dissipating before the next wave arrives. As is customary in a minuet, there is a contrasting middle section; here, the first violin winds through a ceaseless string of tragic eighth notes that eventually stirs up the rest of the ensemble. The minuet melody makes its expected return, but the first violin’s eighth notes reappear to find resolution before the movement ends. The Andante espressivo con moto strikes a contemplative mood: The first violin’s melody droops over a running commentary by the second violin, anchored in place by the pizzicato of the viola and cello. The ensemble eventually follows the example of the second violin until all four are engaged in conversation. The Presto con brio finale takes its inspiration from the saltarello, a 16th-century Italian dance that Mendelssohn also used in the finale of his “Italian” symphony. After the strident opening chords, a flurry of triplets launch the whirling, careening melody.