Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A major, Opus 90, Italian

JAKOB LUDWIG FELIX MENDELSSOHN

BORN: February 3, 1809. Hamburg, then under Napoleonic rule (now Germany

DIED: November 4, 1847. Leipzig, Saxony (Germany)

COMPOSED: Late 1832 and early 1833

WORLD PREMIERE: May 13, 1833. The composer conducted the Philharmonic Society in London

US PREMIERE: November 1, 1851. Carl Bergmann conducted the Germania Musical Society of Boston

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1915. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—February 2016. Masaaki Suzuki conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets; timpani; and strings

DURATION: About 26 mins

THE BACKSTORY 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. 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 his sister 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.

Other projects distracted him, and the deaths of Goethe, Carl Zelter, and Eduard Rietz (Mendelssohn’s boyhood friend and violin teacher) put a damper on his spirits. Impetus to move forward with the piece arrived in November 1832, when the Philharmonic Society of London offered Mendelssohn a generous commission of a hundred guineas for a new symphony, an overture, and a vocal composition. He wasted little time moving ahead.

The symphony proved hugely successful at its premiere. Mendelssohn’s friend Ignaz Moscheles, who served on the orchestra’s Board and had doubtless been instrumental in arranging for the commission, wrote in his diary about the performance, “Mendelssohn was the outstanding success of the concert; he conducted his magnificent A major Symphony and received rapturous applause.” But Mendelssohn had misgivings and soon began tinkering with the score, despite the objections of both Moscheles and sister Fanny.

It is difficult to understand the composer’s diffidence, since the work’s immediate impression of perfect balance is borne out through repeated listening. Nonetheless, Mendelssohn wrestled with the score 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 MUSIC 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, rather more leisurely than the first, a solo clarinet tries out the initial theme, prefiguring the nervous tension that will reign over much of the movement’s middle section. The listener grows lost in the maze of Mendelssohn’s themes, but the solo oboe intones a single note (A), held for nine-and-a-half measures, then a similarly extended F-sharp, to help guide the way, and the main 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.

The second movement is 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 is an old-fashioned minuet-and-trio, with horns seeming to add their gentle punctuation from afar to introduce a trio section in the middle.

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 which 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, that involved a good deal of hopping about. (Its name derives from the verb saltare, which means “to jump.”) 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 sudden, huge crescendo for a punchy, forte ending.—James M. Keller

LISTEN AGAIN: Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Decca)  

This note appeared originally in different form in the program book of the New York Philharmonic and is reprinted with permission. © New York Philharmonic

(May 2019)