The roughly 40-year span from the early 1790s through the late 1820s saw the heights of Mozart and Haydn, the entirety of Beethoven’s career, and the brief flash of Schubert, who died at 31 with already hundreds of works behind him. In an unenviable place on the trailing edge of this pantheon came Felix Mendelssohn, a young composer with remarkable facility, confronted with how much had already been done and what to do next.
But from another point of view, Mendelssohn had incredible advantages. In addition to sheer talent, his wealthy parents provided him with the best education possible in music, languages, arts, and sciences—and even hired whole orchestras to try out his childhood compositions. He also came of age in a moment when the foundations of music seemed solid: he could build directly on the accomplishments of his forerunners, not needing to dig a fresh foundation.
Many of Mendelssohn’s greatest works come from his teens and early 20s. He wrote the String Quintet No. 1 in 1826 at 17 years old, revising it six years later with a new slow movement dedicated to the memory of Eduard Rietz, a violinist, conductor, and close friend who had died of tuberculosis. It was published in 1833.
The Allegro con moto is a polite, organized movement that recalls the chamber music of Mozart. The exposition section is direct and expressive with some feisty interjections, while the development section builds toward tumult, but never quite gets past an orderly impression of chaos.
Dedicated to Rietz, the intermezzo (replacing a Minuet in the original) is a warm remembrance rather than an elegy—set mostly in F major, it features the violin, which was Rietz’s instrument. It feels very personal, entirely avoiding the tropes of musical memorials.
The scherzo is unmistakably Mendelssohn—a tight little caper similar to the scherzos from the great Octet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It begins with fugal entrances for each instrument, pointing to Mendelssohn’s interest in Baroque music and his study of counterpoint. But he puts it to use with inventive effects: touches of pizzicato and other ear-catching colors mark harmonic shifts, and eventually the upper and lower strings break into choirs in dialogue, contrasting loud and soft.
The finale is lively and has a clear sense of direction, its lines decorated with curlicues and bright textures. The first theme skips along, while the second is a tuneful melody extended by the violin. In the development section, Mendelssohn again uses a fugal technique with bold entrances in the five instruments. But the result is far from formal: in fact, the movement feels quite free, an embrace of all he had learned and already made his own.