"…Felix Mendelssohn, that halcyon master who on account of his lighter [than Wagner's], purer, more enchanted soul was honored quickly and just as quickly forgotten, was the beautiful intermezzo of German music." – Nietzsche
Regarded today as a major composer of the romantic era, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) played a role in the rediscovery of baroque music, primarily the works of Bach and Handel, which fell into oblivion after their deaths. Mendelssohn was one of the first composers of his period to renew the art of counterpoint, which would lead to him being considered at times as "the classical romantic."
The three quartets of Opus 44 were begun in 1837 and completed the following year. The composer's reputation at the time was rising dramatically. The oratorio Saint Paul had already earned him international recognition and he had headed Leipzig's renowned Gewandhaus Orchestra since 1835.
Mendelssohn held his Quartet in D major, Op. 44, No. 1 in high regard. It was the first of the three published, but the last one completed. The opening movement is an exuberant and high-spirited conversation among the four instruments. The two central movements provide contrast to the quartet's lively beginning, first with a gentle Menuetto, the only one among Mendelssohn's quartets, and with its perfectly calibrated phrases somewhat rococo in flavour. A wistful slow movement follows, the composer keeping a firm hand on the sentiment. The brilliant finale is a saltarello, a whirlwind version of the 16th-century dance that Mendelssohn had already mastered in the final movement of his "Italian" Symphony.
The first of the three completed, the Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2 opens with a sense of urgency, in Mendelssohn's favourite key. Through the agitation, there is a touch of melancholy to the first violin theme. The tautly woven musical ideas of the movement balance the tension of the opening theme with the repose of its second theme. The sparkling Scherzo surprises us with the unexpected. Mendelssohn demonstrates his intimate familiarity with the violin (and the viola) in the interactions among the four instruments. The slow movement is a bittersweet song-without-words whose main melody sounds especially eloquent when it reappears on the cello. Once again, the finale reveals great sophistication in the intricate way Mendelssohn handles bravura material, marrying musical craft with technical virtuosity.