The title Italian Symphony originated with Mendelssohn himself. During his trip in 1830-1831 he drew inspiration from Italy and sketched out the work during his trip. He completed the first version of the work in 1833 while in Berlin as a fulfilment of a commission from the Philharmonic Society of London. Mendelssohn led the premiere in London to great success, and the symphony was played again a month later. But Mendelssohn was dissatisfied with it, withdrew it, and revised it numerous times, continuing to work on it until his death. He refused to let it be performed and the work was not published in his lifetime. When it was published in 1851 there is some doubt as to what actual version of the symphony was used, but there is no doubt that it is one of Mendelssohn's most popular compositions.
Mendelssohn took inspiration from the people, landscape and culture of Italy but it was the visual arts that inspired him as much as the rest. Mendelssohn was not only a musician, but an accomplished amateur artist with the brush and pencil which made his appreciation of the art he saw even more keen. He described the things he saw to his teacher Zeltner in a letter from Venice:
My family have no doubt told you of the exhilarating impression made on me by the first sight of the plains of Italy. I hurry from one enjoyment to another hour by hour, and constantly see something novel and fresh; but immediately on my arrival I discovered some masterpieces of art, which I study with deep attention, and contemplate daily for a couple of hours at least. These are three pictures by Titian. The "Presentation of Mary as a Child in the Temple;" the "Assumption of the Virgin;" and the "Entombment of Christ." There is also a portrait by Giorgione, representing a girl with a cithern in her hand, plunged in thought, and looking forth from the picture in serious meditation (she is apparently about to begin a song, and you feel as if you must do the same): besides many others.Symphony No. 4 In A Major 'Italian' is scored for pairs of woodwinds, horns and trumpets, timpani and strings. It is in four movements:
I. Allegro vivace - The movement begins with the dance-like first theme that unfolds at length before the second slightly less jubilant theme arrives. The exposition is repeated. The development section takes a snippet of theme in the minor and parades it through the string section in a complex contrapuntal texture. The woodwinds give reminders of the first theme until the strings continue in complexity. A transition signals the recapitulation. After themes are repeated, material from the development section returns briefly until the first theme begins a coda that wraps up the movement in the tonic of A major.
II. Andante con moto - Written in D minor, the rather solemn first theme of this movement was inspired by the procession of monks in Rome, perhaps as he described in a letter:
Here I must deliver a eulogy on monks; they finish a picture at once, giving it tone and colour, with their wide loose gowns, their pious meditative, gait, and their dark aspect....In Albano, among girls with pitchers on their heads, vendors of flowers and vegetables, and all the crowd and tumult, we saw a coal-black dumb monk, returning to Monte Cavo, who formed a singular contrast to the rest of the scene. They seem to have taken entire possession of all this splendid country, and form a strange melancholy ground-tone for all that is lively, gay, and free, and the ever-living cheerfulness bestowed by nature. It is as if men, on that very account, required a counterpoise.A second theme is adorned with trills and grace notes. This theme leads to a theme in major mode that is short lived. The solemn theme of the beginning returns. The major key theme makes another brief appearance, the theme with trills and grace notes leads to a short coda that contains a fragment of the first theme in augmentation, and the movement ends quietly.
III. Con moto moderato - Instead of a scherzo, Mendelssohn writes a refined old style minuet. The trio section is led by the horns with commentary by the woodwinds and strings. There is a contrasting section in a minor key within the trio. The minuet resumes but just before the end of the movement the horn theme from the trio makes a very brief return until the movement ends.
IV. Presto and Finale: Saltarello - Mendelssohn begins the finale in the key of A minor with saltarello, a rapid Italian folk dance. The main theme runs through the orchestra and picks up a few different motives along the way, most of them in minor keys. In one section strings play rapid scales and figures in a section of counterpoint. The main theme ends the movement and has stubbornly stayed in A minor, a novelty for a large work such as a symphony, as up to this time works that began in minor keys ended in major keys.