A year before the end of his extraordinarily productive life, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote a brief, existential question on the score of the final movement of his last completed major work: “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?). Later, on another page in the same movement, he answers his own question with “Es muss sein!” (It must be!).
A year later and shortly after Beethoven’s death, his budding young contemporary, Felix Mendelssohn, posed his own question in a similar manner with “Ist es wahr? (Is it true?), also written on a musical score.
Beethoven’s final opus, “Quartet No. 16 in F-major” for strings and one of Mendelssohn’s earlier works, “String Quartet No. 2 in A-minor,” will be performed one after the other on Sunday by the locally based Polymnia Quartet at the Marigny Opera House.
The similarity of the two works by German composers, according to the quartet’s cellist, Philip von Maltzahn, is what prompted the Polymnia members to schedule the pieces in succession on their upcoming program.
“Beethoven put a theme into what he wrote,” said von Maltzahn, vocalizing the three notes that correspond to the words the composer first wrote on the score. “It’s kind of a thorny, minor questioning theme and then he answers it in the last movement, almost comically,” he added, vocalizing the next three notes that correlate with Beethoven’s answer. “It’s very quick and snappy, almost a little too jubilant from what we know about his (grouchy) personality.”
“Mendelssohn took this theme and transformed it. He wrote a song based on that ('Ist es wahr')," von Maltzahn said. "It was a cloudier version of that question (by Beethoven): the same meaning but a little more romantic and, at the time, more contemporary-themed. He quotes those three notes over and over again in his piece: from the very beginning in a major key with lots of different contexts and directly in the violin cadenzas at the end.”
Although Mendelssohn was only 18 at the time he wrote this piece, he was already an accomplished composer and in his prime, von Maltzahn noted. One of his best-known, most frequently performed works, “Octet in E-flat major,” was composed two years earlier when he was 16.
“He was at the pinnacle of musical training in the 19th century and one of the examples of true musical genius from that time,” von Maltzahn said.
Although the two composers likely never met, Mendelssohn was known to be an admirer of Beethoven’s work, von Maltzahn noted. The Mendelssohn string quartet Polymnia is performing “can be said to be an homage to Beethoven,” he said.
The 25-minute Beethoven piece consists of four movements ranging from moderately fast to lively to very slow over the first three movements. In the final movement the tempo alternately shifts from slow to fast twice as the key changes from F-minor to F-major.
The Mendelssohn quartet spans roughly 28 minutes over its four movements, starting slowly then gradually picking up the tempo and culminating in a lively intermezzo and explosive final movement.
The group has performed the Mendelssohn work on one other occasion in 2016. The Beethoven quartet will be a first for them, von Maltzahn said. There will not be an intermission.
Founded in 2015, all four musicians in the Polymnia Quartet are original members. In addition to von Maltzahn, the others are Benjamin Hart and Kate Withrow on violins and Amelia Clingman on viola. Most of them are also members of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.
“As a quartet, it is tremendously exciting to visit with quite a few of Mendelssohn’s works,” von Maltzahn said, “You really kind of save that for when you’ve found an identity for the group and established a musical camaraderie. We really feel like we’re at that place now in our string quartet. It’s a good thing in that you can know, intuitively, what the other members are doing.”
WHEN: 5 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Marigny Opera House, 725 St. Ferdinand St., New Orleans
TICKETS: Free. $20 donation suggested.
INFO: (504) 322-8995