When Dvořák was visiting in Vienna in 1878, he was so impressed by Mozart’s wind serenade that he composed his own wind serenade in less than two weeks after returning home. Using Mozart’s piece as a model, he made only minor changes to the instrumentation, adding a cello and a double bass to the wind section.
Mendelssohn composed his Octet for Strings in 1825, shortly after he and his family moved to a large, imposing house on Leipzigerstrasse in Berlin. The greenhouse in the courtyard was spacious enough to accommodate the audience of the family’s morning concerts. It was at these that young Felix acquired much of his musical knowledge. Besides the piano, he played the violin and the viola, and often took part in performances of the string symphonies he had composed himself. It was undoubtedly the experience of writing these works that led him to compose the String Octet at the very young age of sixteen.
This work was also impressive because nothing like it had ever been written in chamber music. There were two double quartets by Louis Spohr from 1823, but in this case there are two string quartets that keep responding to each other. Mendelssohn knew what he wanted and left precise instructions in the score: “This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasised than is usual in pieces of this kind.”
Mendelssohn not only dedicated the work to his esteemed violin teacher Eduard Rietz, but also intended it for him as a birthday present. He certainly had his teacher in mind when he wrote the soaring violin phrases of the first movement. The Scherzo was inspired by Walpurgis Night from Goethe’s Faust. According to his sister Fanny, Mendelssohn wanted the Scherzo to be played staccatto and pianissimo, as “everything is new and strange, yet at the same time utterly persuasive and enchanting. One feels very near to the world of spirits, lifted into the air, half inclined to snatch up a broomstick and follow the aerial procession. At the end the first violin takes flight, light as a feather—and all is blown away”.