Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mendelssohn - Symphony No. 3 In A Minor 'Scottish'

Unlike the childhoods of many composers in the early 19th century, Felix Mendelssohn had the good fortune of being born into a family of wealth. His father was an influential banker and could afford to give the best to his children, including a sound overall education as well as a musical education after Felix showed his natural aptitude for the art.

Included in that education was the finest private teachers and opportunities to hear his latest compositions at the Sunday concerts held in his parent's home.  Felix was to be exposed to other countries and cultures as well, and went on a Grand Tour of Europe beginning in 1829.  He made his first trip to England while on the Grand Tour, where he met many of the leading musicians of the day. Mendelssohn was always very popular in England and made many trips there during his short life.

His visit to England in 1829 included a trip to Scotland, which inspired two compositions. The
Hebrides Overture also known as Fingal's Cave was inspired by this trip, as well as the 3rd Symphony In A Minor.  While the Hebrides Overture was completed in 1830, Mendelssohn set the 3rd Symphony on the shelf in 1831, and didn't return to it until 1841, finally finishing it in 1842.  As with the numbering of other composer's works, this symphony was the fifth in the order of completion but the third to be published, hence the numbering of it.

Mendelssohn visited a specific place in Scotland that gave him the first inspiration for a symphony, as he wrote in a letter home:
In darkening twilight today, we went to the Palace [of Holyrood] where Queen Mary lived and loved. There is a little room to be seen there with a spiral staircase at its door. That is where they went up and found Rizzio in the room, dragged him out, and three chambers away there is a dark corner where they murdered him. The chapel beside it has lost its roof and is overgrown with grass and ivy, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything there is ruined, decayed and open to the clear sky. I believe that I have found there today the beginning of my Scotch Symphony.
The nickname of the symphony came directly from Mendelssohn, and refers to the inspiration the country gave him rather than any Scottish folk music he included in it. On the contrary, Mendelssohn was somewhat of a snob as far as folk music. He absolutely detested it and said so in another letter home:
No national music for me! Ten thousand devils take all nationality! Now I am in Wales and, dear me, a harper sits in the hall of every reputed inn, playing incessantly so-called national melodies; that is to say, the most infamous, vulgar, out-of-tune trash, with a hurdygurdy going on at the same time. It’s maddening, and has given me a toothache already.
The premiere of the symphony was in March 1842 by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Mendelssohn.  It is in four movements that are played without a break:

I. Andante con moto  - Allegro un poco agitato -  The movement begins with a melancholy introduction that was derived from sixteen measures written in piano score in 1829 while Mendelssohn was in Scotland. The movement uses this introduction as a basis for the themes and mood of the rest as can be felt when the first theme of the movement begins quietly, and grows to a fortissimo with the second theme. The first theme returns along with other thematic motives, including one just before the end of the exposition (which is indicated to be repeated in the core, but not all conductors do). The development begins softly and builds to a climax, after which the first theme is dealt with. The second theme and some other motives are included in the working out before there is a smooth segue to the recapitulation, after which a section that sounds like the wind howling is played. This leads to a climax, and then the music from the introduction returns and leads to the second movement that is played without pause.

II. Vivace non troppo -  The second movement begins with a short introduction and the clarinet plays the them for the first time:
Because of this theme's rhythmic and melodic nature, this movement is considered by many to be in the spirit of Scottish music, even if it doesn't (and it doesn't) quote any actual Scottish folk tunes. Much has been made about the famous (some would say infamous) Scotch snap in the theme (at the end of the first phrase at the beginning of the 5th measure for instance) as proof that Mendelssohn used it intentionally in reference to Scotland.  This is of no consequence, for the music is an example of a  Mendelssohnian scherzo (although written in sonata form) that is fleet of foot and short in length that could have shown up in a different work. The scherzo ends with pizzicato strings that lead to the next movement.

III. Adagio - A short introduction leads to a flowing first theme that is contrasted with a dark, powerful second theme that reaches a climax before it quiets down and a 3rd theme appears.  The opening measures return, the second theme returns, followed by an expanded version of the first theme. The rumbling second theme grows to another climax, the 3rd theme is repeated. The first theme returns one last time to end the movement.

IV. Allegro vivacissimo - Allegro maestoso assai -  The finale begins with an agitated march, followed by the 2nd theme that is in the same mood. A 3rd theme quietly appears in the oboe. The first theme reappears and is developed with the other themes taking their turn in short sections. The first theme is played quietly and segues directly to a new majestic theme in A major. This theme is in such contrast to what has gone before that some have called it misplaced.  But by the nature of the theme (which some have called Germanic, whatever the hell that means) Mendelssohn may have been in a quandary how to end the work on a positive note with what had gone on before in the movement.

Aside from all that has been written about the work and its connections to Scotland, the 3rd Symphony is a masterpiece, and would be so if it had no nickname at all.

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