Week 6:

This week we are looking at works for more than three or four players and the technical challenges that each player may face. We have chosen three famous works from different periods.

Felix Mendelssohn: String Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20

Johannes Brahms: String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Opus 36

Dimitri Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110

Felix Mendelssohn: String Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20

It is hard to believe that this Octet was composed in the autumn of 1825 and completed on October 15, when the composer was just 16. He wrote the octet as a birthday gift for his friend and violin teacher Eduard Ritz and was only slightly revised in 1832 before the first public performance on 30 January 1836 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Conrad Wilson summarizes much of its reception ever since: “Its youthful verve, brilliance and perfection make it one of the miracles of nineteenth-century music.”

The work comprises four movements:

  • I      Allegro moderato ma con fuoco (E-flat major)
  • II     Andante (C minor)
  • III    Scherzo: Allegro leggierissimo (G minor)
  • IV    Presto (E-flat major)

A typical performance of the work lasts around thirty minutes, with the first movement usually comprising roughly half of this.

The scherzo, later scored for orchestra as a replacement for the minuet in the composer’s First Symphony at its premiere, is believed to have been inspired by a section of Goethe’s Faust entitled “Walpurgis Night’s Dream”.Fragments of this movement recur in the finale, as a precursor to the “cyclic” technique employed by later 19th-century composers. The entire work is also notable for its extended use of counterpoint, with the finale, in particular, beginning with an eight-part fugato. In this section, Mendelssohn quotes the melody of “And he shall reign forever and ever” from the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s Messiah.


The original score is for a double string quartet with four violins and pairs of violas and cellos. Mendelssohn instructed in the public score, “This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character.”

The piece is sometimes played by full string sections using more players for each part as well as an added double bass part which usually (but not always) doubles the second cello part an octave lower.

The composer also transcribed the piece as a piano duet with violin and cello ad. lib. and orchestrated the third movement Scherzo (with compositional alterations) as an alternative third movement to his Symphony No. 1 in C minor.

Borromeo Quartet and Heifetz Faculty stars
Johannes Brahms: String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Opus 36

Johannes Brahms’ String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Opus 36 was composed during the years of 1864–1865 (although it drew on material from earlier times) and published by the firm of Fritz Simrock. It was first performed in Boston, Massachusetts on October 11, 1866, with the European premiere following the next month in Zurich. The work is scored for two violins, two violas, and two celli, and has four movements:

  • I       Allegro non troppo (G major)
  • II      Scherzo – Allegro non troppo – Presto giocoso (G minor)
  • III     Adagio (E minor)
  • IV    Poco allegro (G major)

Brahms did most of the composition in the comfortable country surroundings of Lichtental, near Baden-Baden. According to Brahms’ biographer Karl Geiringer, it conceals a reference to the first name of Agathe von Siebold (with whom he was infatuated at the time) in the first movement, bars 162–168, with the notes a-g-a-h-e.

The work is characterised by its exotic sounding opening of the first movement, by innovative chord structures and its many contrasts both technical and melodical.

Performance by the Amadeus Quartet, Cecil Aronowitz: Viola, William Pleeth: Cello
Dimitri Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110

Written in 3 days the eighth quartet was written shortly after Shostakovich reluctantly joined the Communist Party. According to the score, it is dedicated “to the victims of fascism and the war”; his son Maxim interprets this as a reference to the victims of all totalitarianism, while his daughter Galina says that he dedicated it to himself, and that the published dedication was imposed by the Russian authorities. Shostakovich’s friend, Lev Lebedinsky, said that Shostakovich thought of the work as his epitaph and that he planned to commit suicide around this time. Peter J. Rabinowitz has also pointed to covert references to Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen in the Eighth Quartet.

The work was written in Dresden, where Shostakovich was to write music for the film Five Days, Five Nights, a joint project by Soviet and East German filmmakers about the bombing of Dresden in World War II.

The quartet was premiered in 1960 in Leningrad by the Beethoven Quartet. In the liner notes of the Borodin Quartet’s 1962 recording, music critic Erik Smith writes, “The Borodin Quartet played this work to the composer at his Moscow home, hoping for his criticisms. But Shostakovich, overwhelmed by this beautiful realisation of his most personal feelings, buried his head in his hands and wept. When they had finished playing, the four musicians quietly packed up their instruments and stole out of the room.”

  • I    Largo
  • II   Allegro molto
  • III  Allegretto
  • IV Largo
  • V  Largo
Performance by The Borodin Quartet
Some questions to consider:
  1. What do you think are the fundamental challenges working with bigger groups?
  2. What skills might you need to enhance working with six or eight people?
  3. Find out what was happening during the lives of Brahms and Mendelssohn at the time their pieces were written. How do these events reflect in the music?
  4. Mendelssohn was 16 years old when he wrote the Octet, can you see hints of some of his future works, specifically, can you find the few notes in the Octet that preview the violin concerto?
  5. Listen to the Chamber symphony version of Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet, arranged by Rudolf Barshai. How does this differ from the quartet version?
  6. What emotions do you feel when listening to these three very different works.
Interesting fact:

The fourth movement of the Shostakovich quartet is used extensively in The Lobster, a 2015 film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.

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