Mendelssohn: Fingal’s Cave Overture, Opus 26 │ Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Opus 90, Italian

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany, 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—the members of the family appended the second name of Bartholdy to their surname; accordingly, the composer is often referred to as Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. He wrote his Fingal’s Cave Overture between August 7, 1829, and November of 1834 (when he seems to have made some final changes). It was first played in its not entirely final version by the Philharmonic Society of London on May 14, 1832, with Thomas Attwood conducting. On that occasion, the piece was called Overture to the Isles of Fingal. The first North American performance took place on November 16, 1844, at the Apollo Rooms in New York, with George Loder conducting the Philharmonic Society. The San Francisco Symphony first performed Fingal’s Cave in November 1913, with Henry Hadley conducting. The most recent performances were in October 2010, with Pablo Heras-Casado conducting. This overture is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about ten minutes.

Mendelssohn wrote his Symphony No. 4, the so-called Italian Symphony, in late 1832 and early 1833 and conducted its premiere on May 13, 1833, in London, where it was played by the Philharmonic Society. The Germania Musical Society of Boston offered the first United States performance on November 1, 1851, with Carl Bergmann conducting. Henry Hadley conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performances in February 1915. The most recent performances here, in March 2011, were conducted by Kurt Masur. The work is scored for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about thirty minutes.

Felix Mendelssohn was a composer with a sense of the past, a sense of the musical tradition from which he had emerged. Among the standard-bearers of that tradition was Johann Sebastian Bach, but although Bach’s place in the pantheon is a given today, he was sorely neglected in Mendelssohn’s time. That began to change in 1829, when Mendelssohn launched the modern Bach revival by conducting the Saint Matthew Passion. This program brings together these two very different artists, bonded historically and also geographically—both worked in Leipzig, Bach as music director of the Church of Saint Thomas, Mendelssohn as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. In this concert we encounter Mendelssohn at his most “pictorial” as he evokes wind-swept northern islands and southern sun, and Bach as purveyor of “absolute” music.

“Talent,” remarked a British wit, “is nature’s way of being unfair.” If this is so, nature was at its most unfair when it created Felix Mendelssohn, perhaps the most astonishing prodigy in the history of music—no offense to Bach, another prodigy whose music we also hear this evening. He achieved absolute musical fluency at a young age (fluency as both a composer and a pianist), and by the time he was twenty-one he had been offered—and had turned down—the music professorship of the University of Berlin.

In Mendelssohn’s case, the talent was supported by privilege. He was born into a family that was cultured and wealthy; his grandfather was the noted philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and his father, Abraham, was a supremely successful banker (one remembered for his remark 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 Rebecka and brother Paul enjoyed certain perks as they moved through their childhood. One was that Felix had at his disposal a private orchestra to try out his new compositions at Sunday musicales in the family home in Berlin (where the Mendelssohns had moved when Felix was only two). Many of his lifelong friendships were developed during the years of the private house concerts; it was then that he grew close to Ferdinand David (the musician whom Mendelssohn blessed with his two violin concertos), Julius Schubring (the theologian who would go on to compile the texts for Mendelssohn’s oratorios), and Karl Klingemann (eleven years Mendelssohn’s senior, an accomplished amateur musician and a diplomat). Klingemann is at least partly to thank for the existence of the concert overture Fingal’s Cave, one of Mendelssohn’s most popular works.

In 1827, Klingemann left Berlin for London to serve as secretary to the Hanoverian legislation, and two years later he urged Mendelssohn to come for an extended visit. On March 26, 1829, Mendelssohn wrote him a breathless letter announcing that he expected to arrive in London in less than a month. And so in July, Mendelssohn and Klingemann began a journey from London to Edinburgh, a long and sometimes arduous trip by stagecoach that Mendelssohn documented through pencil drawings and pen-and-ink sketches. On July 26 they arrived in Edinburgh, and a few days later they 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 south to Glasgow and back to England.

The first document directly related to the Fingal’s Cave Overture is a drawing, a view from Oban towards the Hebrides islands and Morven, dated August 7, 1829. It preceded by a few hours the letter Mendelssohn penned that evening in the island fishing village of Tobermory. “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me,” Mendelssohn wrote, “the following came into my mind there”—after which he sketches twenty-one measures of the piece we know today as Fingal’s Cave. The work’s fingerprint is already prominent in the germ of Mendelssohn’s conception.

Fingal’s Cave, seventy-six yards deep and sixty-six yards high, occupies the southern coast of the little island of Staffa, seven miles off the Scottish coast, and visitors of a Romantic disposition were drawn to the purple-black rock columns massed at its entrance, of which Keats wrote, “For solemnity and grandeur it far surpasses the finest cathedral.”

Given that Mendelssohn sketched the work’s opening before he set eyes on Fingal’s Cave, we might conclude that the Overture was not quite so directly inspired by that curious bit of geology as is often suggested. Instead, it seems to have been born more from a general impression of the Hebrides islands (of which Staffa does not happen to be an official part) and from Mendelssohn’s vivid romanticizing of the experience. In fact, the composition of this piece traces a terrifically convoluted trajectory, to which the name Fingal’s Cave became attached only late in the process. Mendelssohn continued working on the piece during his trip to Italy, in the autumn of 1830 (the same trip that would inspire his Italian Symphony), and on December 11, 1831, he completed the first version, which he titled Overture to the Lonely Island. Five days later, another autograph score was completed, incorporating several adjustments and boasting a different title: Die Hebriden (The Hebrides). But Mendelssohn was not yet satisfied with what he had composed. On June 6, 1832, he is thought to have presented another autograph score to the Philharmonic Society of London, this time called Overture to the Isles of Fingal.

One looks in vain for explicit citations of Scottish music in this work. Unaware of the title, a listener would probably not identify the opening as a depiction of surging waves, guess that its boisterous development section represents a storm, or imagine the “veiled effects on trumpets” to sound as if they were “played through a curtain of water” (as did one early critic). Yet Mendelssohn provided here a concert piece of enduring popularity, one so finely crafted that it would not have been out of place as the first movement of a full symphony.

At the musical gatherings in the Mendelssohn home, young Felix unveiled his early compositions, including several of his twelve string symphonies, ebullient works that chart his progress toward increasing subtlety and refinement in manipulating orchestral forces. The last of the string symphonies was introduced in 1823. Three months later Mendelssohn, just turned fifteen, completed his first symphony for full orchestra, No. 1 in C minor (to be heard at our concerts of February 21-23, with Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting). Four more symphonies would follow.

The inspiration for the Italian Symphony was a trip Mendelssohn made to Italy in 1830-31, on the urging of his friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and composition teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter. The trip began with a two-week visit with Goethe in Weimar—it would be the last time Mendelssohn saw the great poet—before the composer continued south to Munich, Pressburg, and finally Italy, where he arrived in October. Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, Genoa, and Milan all delighted him, and he returned to Germany in October of 1831. “The whole country” he wrote, “had such a festive air that I felt as if I were a young prince making his entry.” Writing to Fanny on February 22, 1830, he reported, “I have once more begun to compose with fresh vigor, and the Italian symphony makes rapid progress; it will be happiest piece I have ever written, especially the last movement". According to his own account, the new symphony was meant to embody not only his impressions of the art and landscape he had encountered, but also the vitality of the people.

The symphony proved hugely successful at its premiere, but Mendelssohn had misgivings and soon began tinkering with the score. It is difficult to understand the composer’s diffidence in this regard, since the work’s immediate impression of perfect balance is borne out through repeated listening. Nonetheless, Mendelssohn wrestled with it for years, claiming that the Italian Symphony cost him “some of the bitterest moments I have ever endured,” and he never allowed it to be played in Germany during his lifetime. At his death, he left sketches for extensive revisions in the second, third, and fourth movements. Because he had not yet gotten around to subjecting the first movement to the complete overhaul he had in mind, his revisions for the other sections were ignored when it came time to publish the piece in 1851. The work seems perfectly poised as it is, and audiences have embraced it completely, making it one of Mendelssohn’s most popular compositions.

The Italian Symphony is extroverted from the outset, when violins launch the vigorous first theme over the propulsive repeated notes of the woodwinds. After a second theme, more leisurely than the first, a solo clarinet tries out the initial theme in the minor, prefiguring the nervous tension that will reign over much of the movement’s development section. The listener grows lost in the contrapuntal maze of Mendelssohn’s themes, but the solo oboe helps guide the way, and the principal theme soon emerges from the depths of the orchestra. In terms of sheer energy, one is tempted to think of the first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as a sort of model for the Italian Symphony, with which it shares the bright key of A major.

The Beethoven Seventh parallel continues with the second movement, which is here a slightly mournful slow march, noble and restrained. Moscheles claimed that the tune was derived from a Czech pilgrims’ song, which would be an odd inspiration for an “Italian” symphony. The third movement resolutely avoids the world of the Beethovenian scherzo in favor of the old-fashioned minuet-and-trio, perhaps an early Romantic vision of Haydn, with horns seeming to add their gentle punctuation from afar to introduce the central section.

For the finale Mendelssohn plays a trick of sorts. Whereas many symphonies begin in the minor mode and end in the major, I can think of no other that begins in the major and ends in the minor, as this one does. One could not ask for a firmer rebuttal of the old saw that claims that major-key music is happy and minor-key music is sad. Mendelssohn calls his last movement a Saltarello, a traditional dance, dating at least to the fourteenth century, which involved a good deal of hopping about. This is the most unmistakably Italianate movement of the symphony, a breathless perpetuum mobile in which rhythmic energy combines with buoyant counterpoint. Its coda is masterful: The piece seems to have pretty much danced itself into exhaustion—the orchestra finally reduced to nothing more than first violins whispering the rhythmic motif, pianissimo, over the cellos and basses—when it suddenly rebounds with a huge crescendo for a punchy, forte ending.

James M. Keller

These notes appeared originally in different form in the programs of the New York Philharmonic and are reprinted with permission. Copyright © New York Philharmonic.

More About the Music

Recordings: For the Overture—Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon Originals)  | Kurt Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Berlin Classics)  |  Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca)

For the Symphony—George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony)  |  John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Roger Norrington conducting the London Classical Players (Virgin Classics)  |  Charles Mackerras conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Virgin Veritas)

Reading: Mendelssohn: A New Image of the Composer and His Age, by Eric Werner, translated by Dika Newlin (Free Press)  |  Mendelssohn, by Philip Radcliffe, in the Master Musicians series (Dent)  |  Mendelssohn: A Life in Music, by R. Larry Todd (Oxford)  |  A Portrait of Mendelssohn, by Clive Born (Yale)  |  The Mendelssohn Companion, edited by Douglas Seaton (Greenwood Press)  |  Mendelssohn Remembered, by Roger Nichols (Faber and Faber)