Felix Mendelssohn is one of my favorite composers. He was just as much a child prodigy as Mozart ever was, and just like Mozart, he didn’t live to see his 40th birthday. He gets far too little credit, mostly because he wasn’t revolutionary in his composing. Like Brahms, he enjoyed writing great works in older forms and used styles and harmonic structures from past composers to make his music great. The one thing that Mendelssohn gives us better than any other composer is the scherzo. Scherzo is Italian for ‘joke’ and these little pieces are always charming. If Beethoven invented the scherzo (well, actually Haydn), Mendelssohn perfected it. Below are the five greatest Mendelssohn scherzos that exist.
We will start with a little known but really fun scherzo from the String Quintet in A major, op. 18. This is a very early work, written when he was only 15. It isn’t performed nearly enough. The piece is very beautiful with gorgeous lyricism but also a lot of fun with a great scherzo and rousing finale. Have a listen to the scherzo below.
How About an Orchestra?
Here is a very well-known piece by Mendelssohn that has several sections, many of which just as famous as the scherzo. Mendelssohn wrote the incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream toward the end of his life in 1842. As a teenager, he wrote what we now know as the Overture, which was incorporated into the large-scale incidental music 16 years later. The Overture is an outstanding piece itself, but the incidental music contains the most famous piece he ever composed (Wedding March) and this brilliant scherzo.
Don’t Forget the Piano
Mendelssohn wrote two piano trios later in his career (at 30, he was closer to the end than the beginning). The first (d minor op. 49 – 1839) is arguably one of his most beloved chamber works (except for the next entry on our list). While I prefer the c minor trio (op. 66 – 1845) to the more popular d minor trio, the scherzo of the first trio is one of his best. It is often played on its own or for encores. Of all the Mendelssohn scherzos, this one is one of the happiest. Most of his best scherzo work is in a minor key, but not this one.
The Most Perfect Chamber Music Work Ever Composed
Well, the title says it all. The Octet is, in my opinion, the finest and most perfect chamber music piece ever composed. The way he integrates eight instruments into one cohesive and beautiful piece is amazing. Mendelssohn was 16 when he wrote it. When I was 16, I was learning how to drive and trying to get girls. The scherzo in the Octet is one of his finest (well, the second finest in my opinion). It is devilishly difficult. Because it is so tough, a good performance is hard to produce. Listen below to a good performance of the second best of the Mendelssohn scherzos.
And, In a Stunning Upset…
We started our list with a rarely-performed masterpiece and we’re going to end that way also. Mendelssohn wrote several excellent string quartets. The op. 12 and op. 44/1 are arguably his two finest. There is another great quartet buried among more popular works and that is the op. 44 no. 2 in e minor. The scherzo of this one is about the most fun I’ve ever had performing. I’ve performed all of the Mendelssohn scherzos on this list, but this one is my favorite. It is light and fun, but also has some drama in the middle which adds to the overall score for this scherzo.
And That’s That
As you can see, Mendelssohn knew how to write these devilish little movements. I think of little gremlins stealing my car keys when I listen to these. Do you agree? Did I miss one? Don’t be shy. Let me know in comments what you think.