String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13
In 1827, Beethoven’s late string quartets were published, and Mendelssohn, 18 years old, was studying the complex scores voraciously. Although the late quartets of Beethoven were received in most musical circles with skepticism or perplexity, Mendelssohn was keenly moved by them, touched in particular by the distillation of form Beethoven achieved in those final works. He described what he admired most, in a letter to the Swedish composer Adolf Lindblad, as “the relationship of all 4 or 3 or 2 or 1 movements of a sonata to each other and their respective parts, so that from the bare beginning…one already knows the mystery that must be in the music.”
That year, Mendelssohn decided to compose his own string quartet, his first significant endeavor in the genre. (The numeration of this Quartet is misleading; his String Quartet No. 1, Op. 12, was in fact composed two years after this one). Boldly seeking to abide by the qualities he most admired in Beethoven’s works, Mendelssohn began his quartet with a quotation from his own short, romantic song titled, “Frage” (“Question”). In this way, Mendelssohn’s quartet recalls not only Beethoven, but also Schubert, who famously reworked songs into chamber music, as in the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet and the “Trout” Quintet. The melodic and rhythmic figure underpinning the question, “Ist es wahr?” (“Is it true?”) proliferates throughout Mendelssohn’s quartet, and the full quotation returns – tenderly reharmonized – as the quartet’s conclusion. As Mendelssohn wrote, with pride, to Lindblad: “You will hear its notes resound in the first and last movements, and sense its feeling in all four”.
The full text of “Frage”, which was published under the pseudonym “H. Voss”, might have been written by Mendelssohn himself:
Is it true? Is it true?
That you are still there in the arbour,
by the grape vines, waiting for me?
And cry to the moonlight and the starlight
for news of me?
Is it true? Speak!
What I feel none can know but she
who feels thus
and who, true to me forever,
true to me forever, forever will remain.
Translation by Roger Parker.