Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 was composed in the autumn of 1825 (completed on 15 October), when the composer was 16. He wrote it as a birthday gift for his friend and violin teacher Eduard Rietz (born 17 October 1802); it was slightly revised in 1832 before the first public performance on 30 January 1836 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Conrad Wilson summarizes much of its reception ever since: “Its youthful verve, brilliance and perfection make it one of the miracles of nineteenth-century music.” It was followed in 1826 by the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The work comprises four movements: 00:00 – I. Allegro moderato ma con fuoco 12:48 – II. Andante 18:23 – III. Scherzo 22:41 – IV. Presto
A typical performance of the work lasts around 28-30 minutes, with the first movement usually comprising roughly half of this.
The scherzo, later scored for orchestra as a replacement for the minuet in the composer’s First Symphony at its premiere, is believed to have been inspired by a section of Goethe’s Faust entitled “Walpurgis Night’s Dream.” Fragments of this movement recur in the finale, as a precursor to the “cyclic” technique employed by later 19th-century composers. The entire work is also notable for its extended use of counterpoint, with the finale, in particular, beginning with an eight-part fugato.
The original score is for a double string quartet with 4 violins and pairs of violas and cellos. Mendelssohn instructed in the public 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.”
The work has been compared to Louis Spohr’s 1823 Double Quartet No.1, Op. 65 in D minor.