Felix Mendelssohn's Genius In 40 Seconds

The Octet, which Mendelssohn wrote when he was only 16, continues to inspire with its originality and genius. i i

The Octet, which Mendelssohn wrote when he was only 16, continues to inspire with its originality and genius. Wikimedia Commons hide caption

itoggle caption Wikimedia Commons
The Octet, which Mendelssohn wrote when he was only 16, continues to inspire with its originality and genius.

The Octet, which Mendelssohn wrote when he was only 16, continues to inspire with its originality and genius.

Wikimedia Commons

In our seemingly endless effort to categorize, quantify and qualify nearly everything, the question is often raised: "Who was the world's greatest classical music prodigy?" Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Saint-Saens, Korngold? They were all prolific musician-composers well before they reached their teens. Commentator Rob Kapilow, in conversation with Performance Today host Fred Child, makes a case for Felix Mendelssohn.

"Mendelssohn didn't start composing until he was 10, which was like an old man, by Mozart standards," Kapilow says. "But when he was 16, he wrote the Octet, and when he was 17, he wrote the Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream.

"And that was the greatest music, in my opinion, ever written at a young age," he says. "So I think in terms of sheer compositional quality, Mendelssohn — not Mozart — was the greatest child prodigy in the history of western music."

A Fantastic 40 Seconds

To illustrate his point, Kapilow considers the opening measures of the last movement of Mendelssohn's Octet. The first 40 seconds whiz by, packed with ideas, wit and melody; Kapilow says that stems from Mendelssohn's intensive study of fugues. (He'd written 30 of them by the time he was 12.)

"The opening, that rumbles by so fast, is actually the subject of a fugue," Kapilow says. "And if you look at it and slow it down, it's really made up of two distinct ideas."

Mendelssohn quickly builds his fugue, concentrating, shortening and speeding up the ideas as it progresses. He effortlessly slides out of it with a simple little figure that goes down four times and lands on a new theme. And it's a recognizable theme, too — a truncated quote from Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."

"You have to imagine," Kapilow says, "here's this 16-year-old, painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. He was this big fan of Handel. And he takes one of the most famous tunes, but he says, 'I'm going make it mine,' by changing the ending."

"But what's so fantastic about it," Kapilow says, "it's only the beginning of what's going to happen to that theme."

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