nowadays, if you’re a 16 year old and one of your friends/family members/teachers is having a birthday, what would you get them? apart from likely having no money for a gift, you would probably just write “happy b-day” on their Facebook wall and be done with it. what if you gave this instead?
I -> I - > vi + I - > ii - > ii 7 - > ii o - > V + V - > I
many non-music people would look at this and think they need an advanced math degree to read this…but unbeknownst to many, you just gave someone the opening 8 measures of mendelssohn’s String Octet in E-flat (if you view the arrows as changes in measure and the plus signs as indications that the harmonic progression changes in the middle of those measures). many more of you are probably thinking : who would give music as a birthday gift?
mendelssohn would…and did.
in fact, the string octet in e-flat major, op. 20 was a birthday gift mendelssohn wrote to surprise his violin teacher in 1825. this wasn’t a half assed gift either. its around 30 minutes long…half of that dedicated to the first movement. the last movement even begins with an eight voice fugue passage. also, the chord progression i listed above only represents 8 measures of music…the octet has 1,098 measures in total…and many melodies, textures and dynamic contrasts to go along with them. it has become one of the most famous octets (of any genre) in history and inspired several other octets by different composers for generations to come. Music historian Conrad Wilson goes to say “Its youthful verve, brilliance and perfection make it one of the miracles of nineteenth-century music.”
(above : the borodin quartet and fine arts quartet play part of the first movement)
So next time you’re trying to think of what to write on your friend’s wall for their birthday, copy and paste the 8 measures from above…because you’ll never be able to say happy birthday better than mendelssohn did.
Get the recordings featured in this post:
Since neither the Borodin Quartet nor the Fine Arts Quartet have recordings of Mendelssohn's Octet (Fine Arts has one, but its on vinyl), I put forth my personal favorite, with Ross Pople and the London Festival Orchestra Ensemble...which can be found in either of these two forms.