On his 15th birthday, Mendelssohn’s composition teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, declared his pupil ‘a journeyman in the brotherhood of J. S. Bach, Haydn and Mozart’. While this may seem somewhat presumptive, Mendelssohn had already demonstrated his talent, dedication and fluency in numerous substantial works including four operas.
This sextet was written several months after his birthday: in the intervening time he had written a viola sonata as well as a work for soprano and string orchestra, and begun work on a symphony. Apart from its time of composition, very little is known about the work’s compositional history. It is performed relatively rarely, and is often dismissed as being merely a forerunner to his later, better-known octet.
But the work is remarkable in itself, and reveals Mendelssohn’s growing compositional maturity. The choice of instruments is somewhat unusual, with the choice of two violas rather than two violins, and the addition of piano and bass allowing for a deeper, weightier sound.
The first movement establishes the piano as a counterbalance to the strings, and there are times when the piece sounds almost like a concerto for piano with strings. The sweet adagio of the second movement features some beautiful solo violin passages, while the third movement is a slightly unusual minuet – written in 6/8 time and marked agitato.
Despite his composition teacher’s largely conservative musical tastes, the fourth movement of this work shows Mendelssohn’s expanding musical tastes and eagerness to experiment with new techniques. In direct recognition of Beethoven, the energetic finale makes use of a dramatic interruption to recall the 3rd movement’s D-minor minuet. Disguised in the form of a coda, this is a brief reprieve before the work returns to its powerful conclusion.