Felix Mendelssohn
Octet in E-Flat Major, Op. 20

“Leipzigerstra§e 3” was the young Felix Mendelssohn’s modest way of referring to his family’s opulent home, simply taking note of its address far from the center of Berlin. Its previous custodian and occasional resident, no less a figure than King Frederick the Great of Prussia, had used the chateau as a hunting lodge and its surrounding seven-acre park as his private game preserve. Many of the mansion’s large, high-ceilinged rooms, connected with filigree-encrusted arches, overlooked terraced gardens. Through one of the double-glazed windows, an expensive and rarely encountered feature of early nineteenth-century Berlin architecture, visitors glimpsed the “Garden House,” which contained a lavishly decorated concert hall that was routinely filled on Sunday afternoons by an audience of several hundred, all anxious to hear the latest compositions and performances of the child prodigy, Felix, and on special occasions, his equally talented older sister, Fanny.

The Mendelssohns had not achieved such prosperity easily, nor would their lives go untroubled once it had been attained. Felix’s grandfather, Moses, was fourteen years old when in 1743 he walked the eighty miles from Dessau to Berlin in order to pursue rabbinical studies. Instead of becoming a rabbi, however, he developed fluency in six languages, educated himself in mathematics and literature and became an erudite philosopher whose theories on the immortality of the soul were accepted by Berlin’s intellectuals. Only in the interest of earning a living did he take a job as an accountant for a wealthy silk merchant. After his talents had quickly made him a full partner in the firm, he married Fromet Gugenheim, the daughter of a prosperous and well-established Berlin family who was familiar with his philosophical writings. A significant turn in their lives occurred in 1763, a year after their wedding, when Frederick the Great granted them the status of Schutz-Juden (Protected Jews), thereby sparing them from some of the most pernicious of the officially sanctioned and openly practiced forms of Prussian anti-Semitism. Their happy marriage produced eight surviving children, of whom the second, Abraham, was to become the father of two remarkable offspring.

Though neither a philosopher like his father nor a musician like his children, Abraham possessed singular financial talent and advanced the family fortunes considerably. In 1796, he became a bank clerk in Paris, where the persecution of Jews was not tolerated during the brief, but liberal period of the Napoleonic Consulate. Eight years later and only after much persuasion did he return to the less tolerant Berlin in order marry Lea Salomon, the brilliant daughter of a wealthy and cultured banking family. The newlyweds settled in Hamburg, where Abraham presided over a new branch of the family bank, and where Fanny and Felix, their only two children, were born in 1805 and 1809 respectively. Abraham and Lea supervised their children’s education themselves, concentrating on mathematics, French, German, literature, the fine arts and the piano. In 1811, the family fled Hamburg after the city had defied Napoleon’s blockade of the Continent and faced the wrath of his soldiers. They settled in Berlin, where the children’s already precocious intellectual development was enhanced by tutoring in classical languages, painting and music. Soon both were composing under the supervision of Berlin’s leading musicians. Five years later, after intense spiritual reflection, the parents adopted the Christian faith, added Bartholdy to their name as an outward sign of conversion and baptized their children as Lutherans, thereby granting them access to a largely Protestant culture that flowered in Berlin after Napoleon’s defeat. Their religious conformity was undoubtedly a necessary condition for the purchase of King Frederick’s hunting estate in 1825, the year in which Felix composed his Octet in E-Flat major at the age of sixteen.

Neither Mozart, Beethoven nor Schubert, three of history’s greatest musical prodigies, had written anything quite as remarkable as the Octet at a comparable age. The first movement, demonstrating the teenager’s complete mastery of the intricacies of sonata form, begins with one of the chamber music repertoire’s most exhilarating gestures: the first violin’s gradual ascent to unexpected heights, followed by a precipitous plunge into the abyss of the instrument’s lowest range, only to begin again where the movement had started. An utterly charming andante ensues, undoubtedly appealing to the refinement of the listeners who assembled for the first performance in the elegant surroundings at Leipzigerstra§e 3. The scherzo is a harbinger of its elfin counterparts in later scores by Felix, most notably the incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer NightÕs Dream. Played staccato and pianissimo throughout, the scherzo evoked an imaginary landscape for Fanny, who felt as though she was “very near to the world of spirits, lifted into the air, half inclined to snatch up a broomstick and follow the aerial procession.” The breakneck finale reinstates the opening movement’s vigor, even while attesting to its youthful composer’s contrapuntal accomplishment and familiarity with Bach’s fugues. Throughout, Felix exploits the ensemble’s resources, pitting one string quartet against another, a novel technique that is nowhere to be found in comparable works by Beethoven, Schubert and Spohr.

Felix sustained his youthful exuberance throughout a distinguished career as a composer and conductor. Fanny, facing pervasive sexism, was denied many of the opportunities that had been afforded her brother for the public performance and publication of his works. She accordingly concentrated on writing songs and piano pieces for more intimate domestic settings and prepared the choir for the family’s Sunday concerts. After her marriage in 1829, she and her husband, the painter Wilhelm Hensel, lived on the family estate, occupying private quarters in the Garden House. At the age of forty-two, she died suddenly during a rehearsal of her brother’s Walpurgisnacht. Felix, utterly devastated, rallied for less than a year before he, too, succumbed to a series of strokes. All of Germany mourned the loss of a genius whose promise remained unfulfilled, despite remarkable achievements during a prodigious youth and an all too brief adulthood.

Paul Bertagnolli

A nineteenth-century music specialist and Associate Professor of Musicology at University of Houston, Paul Bertagnolli is the author of Prometheus in Music: Representations of the Myth in the Romantic Era (Ashgate, 2007). The book comprises chapters on Beethoven’s ballet; three lieder by Reichardt, Schubert, and Wolf; Liszt’s incidental music; four nationalistic French choral works; an atheistic cantata by Hubert Parry; and concert overtures by Bargiel and Goldmark.

Brentano String Quartet

Since its inception in 1992, the Brentano String Quartet has appeared throughout the world to popular and critical acclaim.  Since 2014, the Brentano Quartet has served as Artists in Residence at Yale University. The Quartet also currently serves as the collaborative ensemble for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Formerly, they were Artists in Residence at Princeton University for many years.

The Quartet has performed in the world’s most prestigious venues, including Carnegie Hall and Alice Tully Hall in New York; the Library of Congress in Washington; the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam; the Konzerthaus in Vienna; Suntory Hall in Tokyo; and the Sydney Opera House.  The Quartet had its first European tour in 1997, and was honored in the U.K. with the Royal Philharmonic Award for Most Outstanding Debut.

In addition to performing the entire two-century range of the standard quartet repertoire, the Brentano Quartet maintains a strong interest in contemporary music, and has commissioned many new works. Their latest project, a monodrama for quartet and voice called “Dido Reimagined,” was composed by Pulitzer-winning composer Melinda Wagner and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann.  Other recent and upcoming commissions include the composers Matthew Aucoin,  Lei Liang, Vijay Iyer, James Macmillan, and a cello quintet by Steven Mackey (with Wilhelmina Smith, cello.)

 The Brentano Quartet has worked closely with other important composers of our time, among them Elliot Carter, Charles Wuorinen, Chou Wen-chung, Bruce Adolphe, and György Kurtág.  They have also been privileged to collaborate with such artists as soprano Jessye Norman, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, and pianists Richard Goode, Jonathan Biss, and Mitsuko Uchida. The Quartet has recorded works by Mozart and Schubert for Azica Records, and all of Beethoven’s late Quartets for the Aeon label. In 2012, they provided the central music (Beethoven Opus 131) for the critically-acclaimed independent film A Late Quartet.

The quartet has worked closely with other important composers of our time, among them Elliot Carter, Charles Wuorinen, Chou Wen-chung, Bruce Adolphe, and György Kurtág. The Quartet has also been privileged to collaborate with such artists as sopranos Jessye Norman, Dawn Upshaw, and Joyce DiDonato, and pianists Richard Goode, Jonathan Biss, and Mitsuko Uchida.

The Quartet is named for Antonie Brentano, whom many scholars consider to be Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved,” the intended recipient of his famous love confession.

Daedalus String Quartet

Praised by The New Yorker as “a fresh and vital young participant in what is a golden age of American string quartets,” the Daedalus Quartet has established itself as a leader among the new generation of string ensembles. Since winning the top prize in the Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2001, the Daedalus Quartet has impressed critics and listeners alike with the security, technical finish, interpretive unity and sheer gusto of its performances.

Since its founding the Daedalus Quartet has performed in many of the world’s leading musical venues; in the United States and Canada these include Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center (Great Performers series), the Library of Congress, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and Boston’s Gardner Museum, as well as on major series in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Abroad the ensemble has been heard in such famed locations as the Musikverein in Vienna, the Mozarteum in Salzburg, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Cité de la Musique in Paris and in leading venues in Japan.

The Daedalus Quartet has won plaudits for its adventurous exploration of contemporary music, most notably the compositions of Elliott Carter, George Perle, György Kurtág and György Ligeti. Among the works the ensemble has premiered are Huck Hodge’s The Topography of Desire, commissioned by the Fromm Foundation; David Horne’s Flight from the Labyrinth, commissioned for the Quartet by the Caramoor Festival; Lawrence Dillon’s String Quartet No. 4, commissioned by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts; and Fred Lerdahl’s Third String Quartet, commissioned by Chamber Music America, as well as Lerdahl’s Chaconne, commissioned by New Music USA.

To date the Quartet has forged associations with some of America’s leading classical music and educational institutions: Carnegie Hall, through its European Concert Hall Organization (ECHO) Rising Stars program; and Lincoln Center, which appointed the Daedalus Quartet as the Chamber Music Society Two quartet for 2005-07. The Quartet won Chamber Music America’s Guarneri String Quartet Award, which funded a three-year residency in Suffolk County, Long Island from 2007-2010.

Recently, the Daedalus Quartet recorded Fred Lerdahl’s Chaconne, which will be released by Bridge Records as part of a disc of Lerdahl’s collected works, and Vivian Fung’s Frenetic Memories (with clarinetist Romie deGuise-Langlois), written for the group. The quartet’s other recordings include the music of Joan Tower, Lawrence Dillon, Ursula Mamlok, Kai-Young Chan, and Brian Buch.  Strad Magazine praised the quartet’s “exemplary intonation and balance.”  The quartet’s debut recording, music of Stravinsky, Sibelius, and Ravel, was released by Bridge Records in 2006. A Bridge recording of the Haydn’s complete “Sun” Quartets, Op. 20, was released on two CDs in 2010.

William Fedkenheuer

William Fedkenheuer is widely respected as a performer, teacher, and consultant. Uniquely drawing on two decades of experience onstage and off as a member of three internationally renowned string quartets (The Miró, Fry Street, Borromeo Quartets), he dedicates his life to serving others through performance, teaching, personal and professional development.

Growing up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, William became the youngest member of The Calgary Fiddlers in 1983 and was named a Canadian national fiddle champion in 1989 before making his solo debut with the Calgary Philharmonic in 1994.

As a soloist and chamber musician, William performs on the world’s most prestigious stages including Carnegie Hall, Esterhazy Castle, Suntory Hall, and the Taipei National University of the Arts and appearances in the media include NPR, PBS, NHK, and the Discovery Channel as well as Strings and Strad magazines. Recipient of Lincoln Center’s prestigious Martin E. Segal Award, collaboration highlights include commissions and premiere’s of major new works by Kevin Puts, Osvaldo Golijov, and Gunther Schuller and performances with Leon Fleisher, Sasha Cooke, Colin Currie, Wu Han, Jeffrey Kahane, Audra McDonald, Midori, David Shifrin, and Dawn Upshaw. William serves as an Associate Professor of Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin’s Butler School of Music and oversees its Young Professional String Quartet Program.