chapter  4
38 Pages

The Chamber Music of Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn's chamber music is usually thought to reflect the tastes of a classically inclined nineteenth-century composer who, during a short, meteoric career, remained content to build on the firm foundations of his predecessors Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. In this view, Mendelssohn is the supreme representative of the Restaurationszeit in Germany and the early Victorian period in England. He is the staunch upholder of conservative aesthetic values; no radical reformer or innovator, he is the composer of finely polished chamber works that fall easily and unobtrusively into the Classical paradigms (duo sonata, piano trio, string quartet and quintet) established by Mozart and Haydn in the eighteenth century and redefIned by Beethoven in the early decades of the nineteenth. Mendelssohn is the conservator of historical models, who reveals no great anxiety of influence but a serene confidence that there are "no new paths to be cleared," that in the best case what the accomplished composer does is to manage musical material "imperceptibly better than his immediate predecessors."l

In 1840 Robert Schumann anticipated something of this notion when he reviewed Mendelssohn's D :vIinor Piano Trio, the "master trio of the present," as he termed it. Schumann deemed Mendelssohn the "Mozart of the nineteenth century, the most discerning musician, who looks most clearly through the contradictions of the present and for the first time reconciles them."~ Schumann would not have had great difficulty with Mendelssohn's historically rooted reanimation of Classical forms, a process that could still yield original results. Thus, in assembling his memoirs of Mendelssohn in IH47, Schumann praised the Octet for its extraordinary perfection, achieved during the precocious composer's sixteenth year. 1 In 1842, when Schumann himself turned to chamber music in

earnest, he embarked upon a similar journey of historical self~discovery. Not surprisingly, Schumann chose to dedicate to Mendelssohn the three Op. 41 string quartets-works that, like his friend's earlier Opp. 12 and 13, attempted a rajJjJrochement with Beethoven's late string quartets.