Mendelssohn and Franck wrote these quartets each in the last year of their lives, but under
very different circumstances. Mendelssohn’s Op.80 was written after hearing of the death
of his beloved sister Fanny. The music of “classical poise and refined romantic feeling”
with which he had become associated is swept aside as Mendelssohn pens one of the
most impassioned and powerful statements of his output. The first movement, with its
dramatic sforzandos and fast-repeated notes, alternates between passionate frenzy
and a sense of lamentation. The dramatic coda with a soaring virtuosic run in the first
violin leaves the audience gasping for breath. The second movement is far removed
from the light and airy Scherzo of Mendelssohn’s famous Octet. Intense and sardonic,
there is no let-up in mood.
The trio section introduces a melancholy, waltz-like theme in the viola and cello which
only seems to add to the sense of anguish.
The elegiac Adagio allows a respite from the dark key of F minor, but despite the major key,
the movement is a heart-breaking lament. The last movement, with its rapid dovetailing of
the instruments offers little in the way of solace or acceptance and ends with a wild dance
played high up in the first violin. Mendelssohn subtitled the work ‘Requiem for Fanny’ but it
would also serve as his own since he died two months later of a stroke.
Franck, perhaps inspired by an infatuation with one of his former composition students,
Augusta Holmes, was enjoying the most fruitful period of his career, composing a series
of masterworks in a remarkable five year period. After the successful premiere of his string
quartet in 1890, Franck declared “The public is at last beginning to understand me.”
A tour de force, showcasing Franck’s uniquely rich harmonic language and innovative
use of the cyclic form, the thick textures and liberal use of double-stopping almost create
the impression of a chamber orchestra, rather than a single string quartet. The first
movement contains a wealth of thematic complexity and melodic expression with
a broad and impassioned opening Poco lento introducing the main cyclic theme. The
agile second movement sees all four instruments in a state of flight, interrupted by abrupt
silences. The strings are muted throughout, apart from a molto cantabile declaration of
the cyclic theme on the cello. The movement seems to nod towards Mendelssohn,
(Franck apparently had the scores of his quartets, alongside those by Brahms and
Beethoven on his piano while composing this work). The unapologetically languorous
third movement is full of wonderful colours and impassioned climaxes whilst the vigorous
Finale revisits all the major themes, providing a contrapuntal feast that unites the work.