A Trio of String Octets

The 18-year-old Shostakovich, photographed June 28, 1925, two days before he completed his Symphony No. 1.

Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, Op. 11 (1925) when he was only eighteen, the same year in which he composed his Symphony No. 1.

Shostakovich originally composed the prelude in December 1924 as an elegy to the poet (and his close personal friend) Volodya Kurchavov; the scherzo was added seven months later. [cite]

George Enescu was nineteen at the time he completed his Octet for Strings in C major, Op. 7 (1900).

The Romanian composer George Enescu’s Octet for Strings invites numerous comparisons with the exemplar of the genre, the Octet of Felix Mendelssohn—beginning with the two composers’ extraordinary gifts. Enescu was a child prodigy in league with Mendelssohn: a violinist from age four and a composer by five, he entered the Vienna Conservatory at seven and continued his studies with Massenet and Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire at fourteen, by which time he had established the beginnings of a promising career. [cite]

It is only fitting to conclude this trio of string octets with that by Felix Mendelssohn, who completed his Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 (1825) at the tender age of sixteen.

The Octet is doubly remarkable, in fact, not just because of Mendelssohn’s youth, but also because he achieved such rich, apparently effortless, invention in an instrumental grouping—comprising four violins, two violas, and two cellos—that had barely any precedents. [cite]

The sources for the images of the composers may be found here, here, and here.

With thanks to David Nice for introducing me to the Shostakovich octet through his Russian Music course and for suggesting this trio of string octets.

2 thoughts on “A Trio of String Octets

  1. David Nice

    It fascinates me that youth plays such an important part in the fashioning of these masterpieces, especially as writing for octet is quite a challenge. I guess Mendelssohn set the example, but the others are very, very different in mood.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Yes, that fascinates me, too. When I think of young composers today, I do see a certain fearlessness (sometimes bordering on the foolhardy, methinks) to take on a particular composing challenge. Most often, I suspect, the challenge isn’t met, but every once in a while something marvelous emerges, as with the Shostakovich and Enescu examples here. Agree, also, wholeheartedly, that each has a wholly different character. There is nothing derivative in either later work, and what a marvel that such originality of voice was present at their young age!

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