First of all, whether he wrote it at 16 or 17, I was just thinking that my first hearing of the Octet took place when I was about 16 or 17, so maybe it was some sort of cosmic convergence across the centuries that helped me "get it" right away. Also, I've been noticing recently how many favorite musical moments from my youth are basically long dominant pedal points. Pedal points are one of my favorite teaching points when talking about tonality because they're based on such a simple, but powerful idea, and they figure quite prominently in music from Bach through the 19th century. The basic idea is that a bass note (dominant) that wants to resolve to the home key (tonic) gets held out for a long time while all sorts of activity takes places above (or, in some cases, below). This has the effect of creating tension because our well-conditioned ears are awaiting the delayed resolution that the stubborn pedal tone keeps refusing; also, lots of passing dissonances (tensions) usually occur as the other parts move through harmonies that clash with the pedal.
It all sounds so pedantic (Ha!), but in the hands of a great composer it shows us that tonal expectation is what often gives music a sense of direction and shape. (Of course, the idea of feeling long-range expectation can be described in all sorts of non pedal-tone contexts as well.) And yes, the passages that I can remember playing over and over (no doubt scratching up the poor record) from Mendelssohn's Octet are both classic pedal points: the retransition to the 1st mvt. recap (m.200ff) and the big buildup (m.327ff) at the end of the 4th mvt. (The score for the Octet can be downloaded for free here.) Interestingly, the former ends with a stunning passage of unison scales for all 8 instruments (during which we still feel the pull of the implied pedal point) that leads right back into the richly scored opening theme; the 4th movement passage is introduced by a brief moment in which all 8 madly fuguing parts join in rhythmic unison for scales down into the pedal. I'll get back to those scoring issues in a second. (You can hear these two passages, played by a crackerjack group of 1960's Marlboro musicians, here and here.)
There's a part of me that wants to feel embarrassed I never noticed, in my adolescent excitement at hearing those passages, that I was basically falling for the same old simple technique. (It's not quite "What's your sign?" but dominant pedals are used about as often.) Then I think of a wonderful little talk that Mstislav Rostropovich gives on his video-recordings of the Bach suites. Before playing the C Major suite, he sits at a piano and talks about the big bariolage pedal point in the prelude. He describes his feeling of real physical torture when playing such a passage and relates it to the image of a butterfly that's pinned to a board and is trying to escape. I play this little talk for students when I can because it shows them that even an aged musician who's seen it all can still be profoundly affected by this sort of thing.
I did my little "great moments in pedal tone history" talk the other day and also brought up the electric buildup in the finale of Beethoven's 7th and the approach to the cadenza octaves in the Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto finale. That's a particularly fun passage to talk about. The octaves are so famous themselves (day 8 of my 12 Composers of Christmas!) that the long orchestral crescendo over a pedal F is heard by most of us as leading to the octaves even though the long octave passage turns out just to be a prolongation of the dominant chord which finally resolves at the big tune.
Of course, the big tune itself is great but most of us are probably left remembering the anticipation even more - which is true of just about everything else in life! That orchestral crescendo really is marvelously constructed. Not only does it feature the long pedal tone but Tchaikovsky keeps teasing us with the the first three notes of the big tune to come while the bouncy, dotted-rhythm idea keeps dancing around to fill out the texture. (Hear here.*) Once again, this is a passage that I'd listen to over and over years ago and the words "pedal tone" never occurred to me. Fortunately, Rostropovich is there to remind me it's still OK to fall for that old line.
- [*This is odd. I snipped that audio link from a free live performance stored on the Classical Archives, one of the pioneering Internet sites for classical music with its huge collection of MIDI scores. Now it also features tons of live performances, largely by Russian musicians, all still set against one of the worst, most painful to look at color-schemes in WWW history. Anyway, this pianist, Dmitri Ratser, does something I've never heard which is to play the very last octave of the famous cadenza as a full V7 chord. I suppose it confirms the obvious, that the entire passage is one long V7 prolongation, but it sounds wrong. As I describe with the Mendelssohn below, there's something right about not having full harmony return until the tonic chord arrives. Ratser's approach undermines the effect of all those rugged, bare octaves.]
I'd say that the Mendelssohn Octet and the Schubert String Quintet are the two pieces that make me wish the most that I'd worked up my cello skills a little higher. I'm not sure I'm ever likely to get to play either the way I'd want to, if at all. I even started thinking the other day about arranging the Mendelssohn for piano, 4 or even 8 hands, and then discovered that the composer made his own 4-hand version that's been recorded; sadly, from what I sampled on iTunes, the recording didn't sound like it had anything of the dazzling energy that the string version has. I actually think two pianos (and maybe eight hands) would be needed to get something of its unique sound world across.
Although I mentioned hearing the Octet first played by a larger string ensemble, I prefer the octet scoring because it shows how happily this work sits between the worlds of chamber music and the orchestra. There's something about the way all those contrapuntal inner voices take on their own independent identities when played solo; and yet the big united moments have a richer sound than a string quartet could provide. Several music appreciation texts I've seen use Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus to illustrate how a composer can effectively vary sections of imitative, fugal textures with big unified statements from the chorus. Mendelssohn shows the same flair in this work and the 4th movement even makes an obvious nod to Handel's fugal "And he shall reign forever and ever" theme.
Aside from the pedal tone trick, the 1st movement retransition is exhilarating because the scales that begin snaking over the pedal culminate in 2 1/2 bars of all 8 soloists playing the exact same running pattern (across four octaves!) until they arrive back at the rich chords of the opening idea, complete with its chordally conceived melody. It's as if the tension of the pedal can only be resolved by having all those independent voices joined into one, like the members of a tug-of-war team pulling together. The resolution of the tension re-releases the rich orchestral sound that the full ensemble can make. This feel for dramatic use of texture certainly owes a lot to Handel, but it also shows how much the young Mendelssohn enjoyed working with this unusual array of forces.
Speaking of transcriptions, I've had the idea for a few years of trying to play a piano recital in which I'd have a string quartet be the orchestra in some concerto transcriptions. I've thought specifically of Bach, Mozart, and Chopin. Bach would certainly work fine, but I was quite disappointed when I heard a chamber version of the Chopin F Minor concerto in a live radio performance recently. The piano playing was fine but the quartet+bass just didn't provide the right kind of foil, mainly because it sounded too much like a group of soloists. The frequent doubling of parts in Mendelssohn's Octet allows him to create a real tutti sound that can then be enlivened by and contrasted with soloistic detail. I'm honestly not sure why more works haven't been written for this grouping, but I'm pretty content with this one.