MENDELSSOHN:  Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Opus 56, Scottish

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809, and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847. Following the Mendelssohn family’s conversion from Judaism to Lutheranism—the children in 1816, the father in 1822—they appended the second name of Bartholdy to their surname; accordingly, the composer is often referred to as Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Although he made a short preliminary sketch in August 1829, Mendelssohn composed his Scottish Symphony in earnest from late 1840 to January 20, 1842, and it was premiered on March 3, 1842, with the composer conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. After slight revision, the work was re-introduced in what would be its final form on March 17, under the direction of Karl Bach, conductor at the Leipzig Opera. It was introduced in the US by George Loder and the New York Philharmonic on November 22, 1845. The San Francisco Symphony first played the work under the direction of Alfred Hertz in December 1921. The most recent performances, in January 2010, were conducted by David Robertson. Mendelssohn dedicated the score to “H.M. Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland.” It calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about forty minutes.

Felix Mendelssohn was born into a family that was both cultured and wealthy. His grandfather was the noted philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and his father, Abraham, was a supremely successful banker (one remembered for his astute observation that he was destined to go down in history as his father’s son and his son’s father). As a result, young Felix, his gifted sister Fanny Cäcilie, and their younger sister Rebekka and brother Paul enjoyed certain advantages as they moved through their childhood. Even as youngsters, the Mendelssohn children associated with the rich and famous, received well-rounded educations from the best teachers imaginable, and traveled widely. One of the many pleasant perks young Mendelssohn enjoyed was having a private orchestra at his disposal to try out his new compositions at every-other-Sunday musicales instituted in 1822 at the family home in Berlin (the Mendelssohns having moved there from Hamburg in 1811). The composer’s early works were unveiled at these gatherings, among them several of his twelve completed string symphonies, ebullient compositions that chart his progress towards increasing subtlety and refinement in manipulating orchestral forces. The last of the string symphonies was introduced at the end of December 1823. Three months later Mendelssohn, who had just turned fifteen, completed his first symphony for full orchestra, the Symphony No. 1 in C minor (Opus 11), a youthful work still but nonetheless meriting an opus number and, with it, admission to the canon of his “mature” works.

Four symphonies would follow Mendelssohn’s string symphonies and his Symphony No. 1, though not in the order that their eventual numbering implies. The next to be written was the Reformation Symphony, mostly composed in 1829-30 and premiered in 1832, but not published until 1868, when it was identified as the fifth of Mendelssohn’s symphonies. The Italian Symphony followed in 1832, but publication waited until 1851 (four years after the composer’s death), when it was assigned position number four among the symphonies. The Symphony No. 2, a sort of symphonic cantata subtitled Lobgesang—Song of Praise—was the next to be written (in 1841, with publication the following year), and the Symphony No. 3 came last, being completed in 1842 and premiered in 1843. The official numbering of Mendelssohn’s symphonies reflects their publication dates; a chronological lineup based on order of composition would run 1, 5, 4, 2, 3.

Though he did not embark on its composition in any sustained way until 1840, Mendelssohn first thought about writing a piece such as the Scottish Symphony in 1829, when he toured the British Isles in the company of Karl Klingemann, a friend eleven years his elder who had left Berlin for London to serve as Secretary to the Hanoverian Legislation. On March 26, 1829, Mendelssohn wrote him a breathless letter announcing that he expected to arrive in London in less than a month and proclaiming, “NEXT AUGUST I AM GOING TO SCOTLAND, with a rake for folk songs, an ear for the lovely, fragrant countryside, and a heart for the bare legs of the natives.” Mendelssohn plunged eagerly into the cultural swirl of London.

In July, Mendelssohn and Klingemann began their journey from London to Edinburgh, a long and sometimes arduous trip by stagecoach that the composer documented through pencil drawings and pen-and-ink sketches. On July 26 they arrived in Edinburgh, and a few days later set out on a tour of the Scottish Highlands, which took them as far west as the town of Oban and the Atlantic islands of Staffa and Iona, and then brought them back south to Glasgow and back to Cumberland, England, on August 15, finally reaching London again on September 6.

Though the composer would visit England ten times beginning with that first trip, he would never again go as far north as Scotland. But those three weeks he spent in Scotland in 1829 left a deep impression on Mendelssohn, which was made most immediately evident by his composing the concert overture The Hebrides (also known as Fingal’s Cave Overture). Already during the trip he had fixed on the idea of commemorating Scotland through a symphony, and on July 30, 1829, he made a first step in that direction. The inspiration was specific, as he reported in a letter home that night following his visit a few hours earlier to the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh:

In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; a little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door: up this way they came and found Rizzio in that dark corner, where they pulled him out, and three rooms off there is a dark corner, where they murdered him. The chapel close to it is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything round is broken and mouldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I have found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.
At that point he jotted down sixteen measures of music in piano score with jottings added to indicate instrumentation; and eventually they would grow into the andante opening of his Scottish Symphony. Mendelssohn made occasional desultory stabs at the piece, but not until late 1840, and mostly in the fall of 1841, did he dedicate himself in earnest to what would become his final symphony.

When he conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the work’s premiere, he presented it as a piece of strictly “absolute” music, and the program carried no reference to any programmatic or depictive connection. Nonetheless, critics, including Robert Schumann in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, perceived a folk character in many of the work’s themes.

In fact, Mendelssohn’s symphony does not employ folk melodies from Scotland or anyplace else. But his writing does conjure up a spirit that would have been deemed folk-like by many of its contemporary listeners, saturated in a passion for Ossianic ballads and other pseudo-exoticisms that stirred Romantic souls.

The Introduction, refined from Mendelssohn’s off-the-cuff sketch of 1829, is dark and brooding, its character underscored at the outset by a rich, mid-range orchestration of oboe, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and divided violas. Violins enter, and then the rest of the full orchestra, with more impassioned strains. And yet it is a quiet, simmering passion; here, as through much of the symphony, loud outbursts and sforzando accents are doled out to stand in telling contrast to the overriding quiet. The Introduction fades away into near-silent pianissimo, and it is at that dynamic that the principal, faster portion of the opening begins. But even the opening pages of this section seem transitional when, after building in volume and texture, the movement breaks, fortissimo, into a full gallop, at which tempo it remains till its end.

The first movement’s forceful ending serves as a semicolon rather than a period, and woodwinds waft out of its emphatic “closing chords” as transition to a recollection of the doleful opening melody of the Introduction. This proves only momentary, however, and gives way to the Scherzo, in which the strings scurry with repeated staccato figures, against which the winds inject fanfare-like outbursts. A solo clarinet announces the bubbling main theme of this movement, a tune that we would be hard-pressed to hear as anything other than Scottish; its opening phrases even wind up with a so-called “Scotch snap,” a rhythmic figure consisting of a quick note on an accented beat followed by a longer note on an unaccented one.

The Adagio follows, in which Mendelssohn mixes one of his signature, sweetly Victorian “song without words” melodies with passages of darker, even forbidding import; Mendelssohn biographer Larry Todd imagines that the “regal dotted rhythms” of the latter “plausibly allude to the tragic figure of Queen Mary.” “And,” he continues, “the breathless, energetic finale, with its jagged dissonances and contrapuntal strife, generalizes the topic of conflict in Scottish history.” Musicologist Thomas Grey is more specific, not unreasonably building on Mendelssohn’s marking of Allegro guerriero (Quick and warlike) for the last movement. From there he extrapolates, and, in a gender-associative interpretation that so-called “new musicologists” find irresistible, suggests that the Adagio may be taken as an inherently feminine prayer that leads to a masculine finale of military vitality. The fact is that no listener is likely to be unmoved at the point near the end of the finale when the low woodwinds, horns, and violas—practically the same instruments that uttered the lament at the symphony’s beginning—swing from simple into compound meter and from minor mode into bright A major to sing out what sounds for all the world like a hymn of victory—a passage that Mendelssohn himself likened to the singing of a classic German Männerchor (men’s choir). The scholar Peter Mercer-Taylor has proposed that this “Männerchor” is the key to the ultimate meaning of this symphony, which is that it celebrates the German “present” through memories of a Scottish past. Our modern exegetes argue their cases with conviction and some of them follow their fancies to quite astonishing and detailed lengths. We are all free to join them, or not, in their intellectual excursions.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Decca—out of print but available as an Arkiv CD reissue)  |  Peter Maag conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (London/Decca Legends) | Kurt Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Eurodisc)  |  Claudio Abbado conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)

Reading: Mendelssohn: A Life in Music, by R. Larry Todd (Oxford University Press)  |  The Mendelssohn Companion, edited by Douglas Seaton (Greenwood Press)  |  Mendelssohn in Scotland, by David Jenkins and Mark Visocchi (Chappell)  |  Mendelssohn Remembered, by Roger Nichols (Faber and Faber)  |  Gentle Genius: The Story of Felix Mendelssohn, by George R. Marek (Thomas Crowell)