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June 25, 2017

Best String Octets

String octets are chamber works for eight string players and usually consist of four violins, two violas and two cellos, but there are also combinations of four violins, two violas, a cello and a double bass. One could say that the string octet originated in the double quartets written by Spohr in the early 19th c.; the most famous string octet was written by Mendelssohn, but there are several interesting works from both 19th and 20th c. An octet is of course not a string quartet with the parts doubled: in the double quartets by Spohr we have two quartets set off against each other in a virtuoso way, and in the "normal" octets we have music for eight differentiated string players.

The string octet has a nice sonority. The number of string octets is, however, relatively small. Although there are string sextets, as far as I know, there are no string septets and very few string nonets (probably because this combination is already so close to a string orchestra that it makes little sense). Of course, there are many sextets, septets, octets and even nonets for mixed combinations of winds and strings, but here we will restrict ourselves to string music.

Best string octets:

1. Felix Mendelssohn, String Octet in E-flat major Op 20 (1825)
The original score is for a double string quartet with 4 violins and pairs of violas and cellos. Composed when Mendelssohn was 16 years old, at a time when Beethoven, Schubert and Weber were still alive and active. Schubert had composed his Octet in F major - a work for winds and strings following the pattern of Beethoven's early Septet - only the previous year. This work marked the beginning of Mendelssohn's maturity as a composer. It is a work in a symphonic style, which is immediately apparent at the opening, impressing the listener more as a serenade than a chamber music work. This broadly proportioned and warm-hearted opening movement accounts for nearly half the work's length. It is followed by an Andante characterized by a song-like siciliano. Then follows a Scherzo (played pianissimo and staccato) which seems to point directly to Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" music, but the inspiration was in fact the "Golden Wedding of Oberon and Titania" in Goethe's Faust. The Presto finale is full of energy. The Octet was one of Mendelssohn's own favorites among his works and I think most listeners will agree.
Recording listened to: Octets by Mendelssohn and Raff, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble on Chandos.

2. Louis Spohr, Double Quartet No 3 in E minor Op 87 (1833)
Spohr was attracted by the prospect of using the richer textures that would result from the interplay between two equal, yet independent, string quartets. The concept of two string quartets sharing the musical argument was gradually developed by Spohr in the four Double Quartets he wrote between 1823 and 1847. The third quartet of 1833 is generally considered as the finest of the series. In a minor key, it starts with a gravely melancholic Adagio-Allegro. This is followed by a virtuoso Andante con variazoni. The third movement is a restless and agitated Scherzo and the Finale eventually brings a mood of optimism.
Recording listened to: Spohr Double Quartets Nos 3 & 4, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble on Hyperion.

3. Niels Gade, String Octet in F Major Op 17 (1849)
Gade's Octet is heavily influenced by the Octet of Mendelssohn, who had been the highly regarded mentor of the Danish composer. The work was written when Gade, just past thirty, was establishing himself in Leipzig. It is interesting he tackled the form of the string octet before writing a string quartet, perhaps because it was a genre with less intimidating examples; and he may have preferred the flexibility and expanded range of tone color afforded by the larger number of instruments. The Octet is closely linked to Mendelssohn's elegant, flowing style and perhaps because of that, has remained one of Gade's most beloved chamber music compositions.
Recording listened to: Chamber Music by Niels Gade, The Kontra Quartet and others on BIS.

4. Johan Svendsen, String Octet in A major Op 3 (1866)
The Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen (1840-1911) was born in Oslo (then Christiana) and studied the violin at the Leipzig Conservatory with Ferdinand David, a colleague of Mendelssohn; problems with his hand forced him to switch to composition which he studied with Carl Reinecke. He worked as a conductor in his native town and also became musical director of the Royal Opera in Copenhagen. In his time, Svendsen was considered as the leading Scandinavian conductor. His compositions are not very numerous (two symphonies, two violin concertos and one for cello, Norwegian Rhapsodies, chamber music) and were mostly written when he was in Leipzig, although they should not be considered as student works. As was the case with Gade and Raff, also for Svendsen's Octet, Mendelssohn's youthful masterpiece served as the great example. The emphatic first subject is announced by all eight instruments in octaves. The inventive second movement has the spirit of a scherzo and is rhythmically intriguing. The slow movement can best be described as a set of free, continuous variations. The sonata-form Finale has an angular main theme and lyrical, curving second subject. The Octet is further characterized by its use of Nordic melody, tonal amplitude (often bordering on the orchestral) and bold and innovative rhythms. A very attractive work.
Recording listened to: Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble on Chandos (with Quintet by Nielsen).

5. Joachim Raff, String Octet in C major op.176 (1872)
Joachim Raff (1822-82) was Liszt's assistant in Weimar and later a renowned teacher and composer in his own right. His music is characterized by well-crafted professionalism. Like Gade, his Octet for Strings shows the influence of Mendelssohn - in the opening of the first movement, after a brief statement of the rhythmically powerful first theme, the answering phrase recalls the scherzo of Mendelssohn's Octet. The two middle movements are in ABA form. The C minor scherzo has a delightful central theme; it bounces by like a fast horse ride. The F major slow movement is a "Song without Words" in all but name. The finale, with its moto perpetuo forward momentum, shows the strongest influence of Mendelssohn. The final coda is announced by a brief pizzicato, before the music races down to the finish line. Raff is almost forgotten - by 1920 his music had disappeared from the concert stage - , although happily among collectors his symphonies, concerts and chamber music have made a comeback. In his own time, he was regarded as the equal of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schumann and Liszt. That is perhaps too much praise, but he certainly was an impeccable craftsman who left behind great chamber music. Raff.org is a website dedicated to his music, with also a detailed discussion of the present Octet.
Recording listened to: Octets by Mendelssohn and Raff, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble on Chandos.

6. Reinhold Gliere, String Octet Op 5 (1900)
Reinhold Gliere (1875-1956) was born in Kiev. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Taneyev and Arensky. Later, Gliere himself became professor at his alma mater; among his students were Khachaturian, Prokofiev and Miaskovsky. Gliere was in the first place known for his symphonies and ballets, but he also wrote excellent chamber music. The Octet, written when he was 25, opens with an excited Allegro moderato in sonata-form - both the upbeat main theme and melodious side-theme are unmistakably Russian in character. The composer displays great polyphonic mastery in the development section. The second movement is an elegant intermezzo with a soulful Russian melody as middle section. The epic Andante builds up an expansive theme, which grows from quiet singing to a powerful climax. The Allegro assai finale paints the picture of a Russian festival; there are two main themes, each distinguished by a colorful sound palette. In the coda-cum-apotheosis the Octet reaches near-orchestral power. One of the best string octets ever written.
Recording listened to: Berlin Philharmonic String Octet on MDG (with Sextet by Gliere).

7. George Enescu, String Octet in C Major Op 7 (1900)
George Enescu (1881-1955) was a Romanian composer, violinist and pedagogue who brought unknown sonorities into Western art music by his inventive use of Romanian folk music (for example quarter-tones). Enescu studied at the Vienna and Parisian Conservatories. Chamber music constitutes a major portion of Enescu's musical output. His epic Octet for strings was hailed as an amazing accomplishment for a young man of nineteen. It combines the musical language of the late romantic era with the emerging new language of polyphony. The opening movement Très modéré is characterized by an expansive main theme. In fact, the thematic material of the whole composition is introduced here: accentuated rhythms, descending chromatic progression, and leaping intervals. The second subject is presented in canonic form. The explosive second movement, Très fougueux, is indeed, as the title says, a massive fugue. Lentement is a beautiful slow movement in the form of a mysterious nocturne. Stillness and harmony predominate here. The finale, Movement de Valse, is a limping waltz which combines many of the themes of the earlier movements and ends in a grandiose classical fugue. As the ceasurae between the movements are not very emphatic, the impression of a continuous melody emerges in this wonderful octet.
Recording listened to: Ensembles of "George Enescu" Bucharest Philharmonic Orchestra on Arte Nova (with Dixtuor).

8. Max Bruch, String Octet op. posth. (1920)
Max Bruch (1838-1920) is now only known as the composer of a famous violin concerto, but in fact he wrote more than 100 works in various musical forms, ranging from opera to oratorio, from cantatas to symphonies and from concertos to songs. When he was born in Cologne Mendelssohn was still in his prime; when he died Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps was already seven years old. But Bruch would his whole life be a classical composer in the romantic style of Mendelssohn and Schumann. In the Octet, the last work Bruch composed, the first violin part is more virtuosic than those of its colleagues. Bruch also has replaced the second cello with a double bass. The Octet consists of three movements - the scherzo has been omitted (although the finale contains scherzo elements). Two strong Allegro movements frame an Adagio in the dark key of E flat minor. The opening allegro features a dramatic first theme and a lyrical second theme. The finale is bright and optimistic and ends with a coda.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Ulf Hoelscher on CPO (with Piano Quintet & String Quintet).
Posts about classical music include:
  • Best Piano Concertos, Part One 
  • Best Piano Concertos, Part Two
  • Best Piano Concertos, Part Three