musical excerpt: mendelssohn string quartet no. 2 in a minor

This quartet was written in 1827 by an 18-year-old Mendelssohn. How incredible it is that such an early work has the ability to take its audience captive from the first chords: wood and strings breathing and moving together, chorale form, through reverent, earnest harmonies that make you want to lean forward, hold your breath.

After this brief hymnal introduction, we are introduced to the motif that runs throughout the work: a dotted-rhythm question that speaks and then waits, perched breathless on the dominant, before repeating itself in hushed tones. The question is “Ist es wahr?”–“Is it true?”–and is taken from “Frage,” a song Mendelssohn had written a few months earlier.

Above: the opening motif from "Ist es wahr?" Below: the motif as quoted in the string quartet Op. 13.

Top: the opening motif from “Frage,” Op. 9 no. 1
Bottom: the motif as quoted in the string quartet Op. 13.

Ist es wahr? Ist es wahr?
Daß du stets dort in dem Laubgang,
An der Weinwand meiner harrst?
Und den Mondschein und die Sternlein
Auch nach mir befragst? Ist es wahr? Sprich!
Was ich fühle, das begreift nur,
Die es mit fühlt,
Und die treu mir ewig,
Treu mir ewig, ewig bleibt.
Is it true? Is it true
that over there in the leafy walkway, you always
wait for me by the vine-draped wall?
And that with the moonlight and the little stars
you consult about me also? Is it true? Speak!
What I feel, only she grasps —
she who feels with me
and stays ever faithful to me,
eternally faithful.

This motif opens and closes the quartet, bringing us back in cyclic form to the same profound, unanswered question.

(Motif is heard at 0:47 of the first movement)

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