Robert Schumann called Mendelssohn “the Mozart of the 19th century, the most brilliant musician, the one who most clearly sees through the contradictions of the age and for the first time reconciles them.” The “contradictions of the age” to which Schumann alluded refers to the 19th century’s philosophical tug of war between the conservative Classicists focusing on the past, in one camp, and the progressive Romantics, in the other. The Classicists emphasized form over content, the Romantics believed that content should predominate over form. And as Schumann asserts, Mendelssohn’s music represents the best of both camps, respecting graceful classical forms while at the same time filling them with expressive Romantic passion, both blended together with technical mastery. And as you might imagine, however, Mendelssohn took incoming flak from both camps. Some conservatives thought him too modern, but Berlioz said that “perhaps he had studied the music of the dead too closely”. I note that history credits Mendelssohn for reviving J.S. Bach’s baroque music which had largely gone into the shadows over time.
Mendelssohn wrote these Four Pieces over a period of four years, 1843-1847. He produced them not as part of a single work, but each as a stand-alone composition. They had not been published at the time of his death. His unexpected demise at the age of 38 created a demand for his pieces, motivating his publisher to put the four together and to market them as a single four-movement work. The good news is that the marriage is perfect. On occasion they have been wrongly advertised as his String Quartet No. 7.
The first movement is a standard theme and variations, the second a peppy scherzo, the third a caprice, and the fourth a fugue which demonstrates his affinity for the past and his contrapuntal mastery. Like Mozart to whom he has been favorably compared, he was lost to the world way too young. But here we are 175 years later enjoying his marvelous legacy, thanks to the industry and skill of our superb musicians.