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Two loves – one transitory, the other a more enduring influence – came together in Felix Mendelssohn’s A-minor String Quartet. In the summer of 1827, the 17-year-old musician was away from home visiting friends when he wrote the song “Frage” (Question). Mendelssohn himself may have written the lyrics, which pose a romantic question about a secret admirer. This was probably Betty Pistor, a singer in the vocal group that Mendelssohn accompanied and a Mendelssohn family friend.

The other, deeper obsession for Mendelssohn that year was the late string quartets of Beethoven, which were then heady new music much discussed in musical Europe. “Frage” provided the inspiration and a unifying theme for the string quartet that Mendelssohn began almost immediately after writing the song, and Beethoven’s late quartets suggested much of the form and texture of the music.

The dotted long-short-long rhythm of the song’s central question, “Is it true?,” can be heard in the first movement, and the finale quotes the end of the song. The middle two movements reference that dotted motif, as well as another phrase of the song. “You will hear its notes resound in the first and last movements,” Mendelssohn wrote to the Swedish composer Adolf Lindblad about the song’s presence in the quartet, “and sense its feeling in all four.”

Beethoven’s late quartets offered the young composer some pertinent ideas about incorporating rhetorical questions and recitatives in instrumental music, and much more. Indeed, we can hear Mendelssohn in effect reverse engineering Beethoven. Modal flux between major and minor manifestations of the home key – not an uncommon one, but in this case clearly connected to Beethoven’s Op. 132 – characterize the outer movements and the “Heiliger Dankgesang” of Op. 132 is also suggested by the closing of Mendelssohn’s deeply felt Adagio. Mendelssohn draws on the Cavatina of Beethoven’s Op. 130 for the opening of that movement, and goes on to reference Beethoven’s Op. 95 with a chromatic fugue. (The Intermezzo is elegant, fey “Midsummer Night” music.)

The adolescent composer could hardly be expected to match Beethoven’s exalted transcendence or his organic structural/motivic integration – who did? – but he obviously understood much that his elders found bewildering at best, and interpreted it with remarkable skill and conviction.

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.