F. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy  Manuscript of octet op. 20

F. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

Manuscript of octet op. 20

Origin of the genre

The string octet is one of the largest, most complex and beautiful-sounding classical chamber music groups. It unites the finer qualities of the string trio and quartet with the grand scale of orchestral music.

 The first and most famous string octet was composed in 1825 by a sixteen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (op. 20). It was a completely new, fresh and youthful concept. He wrote: "This octet must be played in the style of a symphony; the pianos and fortes must be shown perfectly as well as being more sharply highlighted, exactly as it happens in pieces of this kind." This work inspired great composers including Dmitri Shostakovich, George Enescu, Reinhold Gliere and many others who composed their masterpieces in this genre.

 Also called a double quartet, it is made up of two string quartets, often arranged antiphonally. The first example of this form was composed by Andreas Romberg (1820), although the work was never completed.

 The four most famous double quartets (opp. 65, 77, 87 and 136) were composed by Louis Spohr between 1823 and 1847, modeled on a work by Andreas Romberg. Famous later examples of this form include works by Nikolay Afanasyev (Housewarming and Le Souvenir) as well as Darius Milhaud's paired 14th and 15th String Quartets op. 291 (1948–49), which are composed to be playable simultaneously as an octet.

Works in this genre are still being composed currently.