Felix Mendelssohn is a rarity among famous composers: He was not afflicted by any physical or emotional challenges. No, Felix was the well-educated, privileged, and handsome son of one of the wealthiest bankers in Europe, Abraham Mendelssohn, who counted the Czar of Russia as one of his clients. Name an advantage, and Felix had it — including the kind of musical talent that caused his contemporaries to compare him to Mozart. But are you ready for this? His father provided him with a private orchestra which came to their home for every-other-Sunday musicales, an incredible benefit for a budding composer. And, as you might guess, he wrote music for the love of the art, not to scratch out a living.
Felix wrote his original Octet at 16 as a birthday present for his violin teacher, Eduard Rietz. The demanding first-violin part testifies to Rietz’s staggering virtuosity. In a way, the Octet transcends the territory of classic chamber music, leaning more towards a compact string symphony. Felix wrote these instructions in the 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.”
Felix did not say much more about it, but his sister, Fanny, did. About the celebrated third movement, a scherzo, she said, “The ethereal, fanciful, and spirit-like scherzo in this piece is something quite new. He tried to set to music the stanza from the Walpurgis Night’s Dream section of Goethe’s ‘Faust’: ‘Trails of cloud and mist brighten from above; Breeze in the trees, and winds in the reeds – and all is scattered.’ One feels half inclined to snatch up a broomstick and follow the aerial procession.” (Walpurgis Night was a nocturnal ceremony designed to ward off evil spirits and witches.)
The finale is a display of astonishing bravura technique. One observer described it as “sheer boyish glee in playing around with themes and combining them in unexpected ways.”