String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 64 No. 2 HAYDN

Joseph Haydn's set of six Opus 64 quartets, composed in 1790, are astonishing even by his high-ranking standards. This second one in B minor is rather somber in character. The first movement - allegro spirituoso - opens with a short violin solo which evolves into a dramatic turn to the minor; and the movement intensifies as it progresses. The second movement - adagio ma non troppo - extends slowly with a lyrical theme and long note values. It is arguably the greatest slow movement that Haydn ever wrote, with its undulating inner voices set against the first violin's endless melody. The theme is stated by the violin and echoed in the cello and middle strings. As the theme develops, it is elaborated with filigree in the violin and a restatement of the theme in the cello. The third movement is a minuet which returns to the minor, and features a peaceful, lyrical trio led by the violin. This theme in the trio echoes the slow movement of the quartet. The finale is marked presto and is again written in the minor. The movement increases in dramatic intensity until it quietly ends in the high register of the violin.

String Quartet No.16 in F Major, Op. 135 BEETHOVEN

This is Beethoven’s last string quartet and last complete opus in any genre. He finished it in October 1826, just five months before his death, as his nephew Karl was recovering from a suicide attempt. One could expect music created under such unstable circumstances to be anguished, but the piece is radiant and full of sunlight, as if he achieved in it the peace which so eluded him in life. The first Allegretto features short motives, stops and starts, a light-hearted fugue, and a wonderfully elastic series of harmonic modulations. The contrasting Vivace bristles with energy. Its outer sections rocket along on a sharply-syncopated main idea, while the vigorous trio sends the first violin sailing high over the other voices. In the impressive ending the music grows quiet, comes to a moment of stasis, and then Beethoven wrenches it to a stop with a sudden, stinging surprise. The slow Lento assai builds on the first violin's heartfelt opening melody. The even slower middle section, full of halting rhythms, spans only ten measures before the return of the opening material, now elaborately decorated. The final movement provides us with a riddle as a preface. Above the music, Beethoven writes "Der Schwer gefasste Entschluss" (The Difficult Resolution or Decision), and gives us two short examples of music. The first is marked Grave and contains the question "Muss es sein?" (Must it be?). The second is marked Allegro and states not once, but twice: "Es muss sein! Es muss sein!" (It must be! It must be!). What follows is a musical discussion, going back and forth between the two, with the answer "It Must Be!" triumphantly claiming the end. The piece comes to a close with wit and lightheartedness.

String Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 MENDELSSOHN

Felix Mendelssohn’s parents, as wealthy patrons of the arts in Berlin, supported several activities throughout the city and brought much of that culture home to their family, giving dinners for musicians, composers, and philosophers, and hosting regular Sunday morning concerts in their living room. They hired the best teachers for their talented son, who also studied piano, violin, and composition, and ensured that the pieces he produced would be performed in public. Stirred by such exposure, Felix quickly evolved, and conquered the concert stage at an age when musicians today are still in school.

The Octet for Strings dates from 1825, when the precocious young man was just sixteen years old. The work is remarkable not only for the facility of its melodies and the gracious balance of its various parts, but also because Mendelssohn proved himself a pioneer in producing a masterful work for the combination of two string quartets. Haydn never wrote such a work, nor did Mozart or Beethoven or Schubert.

Mendelssohn dedicated the work to his friend, the violinist Eduard Rietz. Alternately symphonic and intimate, the piece begins with a graceful Allegro that soars with the first violin, then proceeds to a gently thoughtful second movement. The Scherzo is all tip-toes and mystery, foreshadowing the scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Mendelssohn would compose in later years. The Presto begins with a bustling fugue, a technique he learned from his broad studies of Bach, and concludes in a mood of utter exuberance.

The Octet is widely favored by audiences and players alike. The composer himself regarded it highly, as late in his tragically abbreviated life, he described the Octet as "my favorite of all my compositions" and added, "I had a most wonderful time in the writing of it!"