November 9 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
November 10 – Friday at 8:00 p.m.
November 11 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.
Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”)
in A minor, Opus 56
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
At a Glance
Mendelssohn conceived the opening theme for this symphony while visiting the Holyrood Palace in Scotland in August 1829. He sketched out a plan for a full-length “Scottish” Symphony in 1830, and then worked on it sporadically over the next decade. He returned to it in 1841 and worked steadily on it throughout much of the year, completing the score in Berlin in early 1842. The first performance took place on March 3, 1842, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, under the composer’s direction. Although Mendelssohn often referred privately to this work as his “Scottish” Symphony, it was first presented and published without any such title. The score was published in 1842 with a dedication to Queen Victoria of England.
This symphony runs about 35 minutes in performance. Mendelssohn scored it for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in November 1935, under Artur Rodzinski’s direction. The most recent performances were conducted at Blossom, by Nicholas McGegan in 2016 and by Jahja Ling in 2013.
About the Music
Felix Mendelssohn’s reputation as a composer has undergone a steadily evolving course over the past century and a half. Upon his early death in 1847 — aged only 38 years — he was hailed as one of world’s greatest music practitioners. He was an accomplished pianist, an extraordinarily gifted organist, a celebrated composer, and one of the first great conductors. Add to these his keen interest in science and literature, his ability to draw and paint, and his well-practiced skills for entertaining and socializing — Mendelssohn was very much a quintessential renaissance man of the Romantic era.
The next hundred years, however, saw his reputation tarnish and fade, and much of his music was all but forgotten. The German supremacist composer Richard Wagner began a violent attack — on Mendelssohn’s music (and family origins) — as early as 1850. Changing tastes and lush “new” music often made Mendelssohn’s pieces seem quaintly out of step. Only in the past fifty years or so, with more thoughtful and objective studying of Mendelssohn’s work and contributions to 19th-century music, have the depth and range of his art begun to shine anew.
Born into a well-to-do German family (his father and uncle were bankers, his grandfather a famous Jewish philosopher), Felix’s early abilities at the piano and as a composer echoed so closely Mozart’s talents from fifty years before that he was hailed in his youth as the “second Mozart.” Before he was twenty years old, he had composed music of incomparable beauty and form (his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his String Octet, and his Symphony No. 1 are but three of the youthful masterpieces created by the time he was 17). More daringly, as a student he had organized and led — against the advice of his own teacher — one of the first performances of the St. Matthew Passion in at least fifty years, helping to ignite a widespread revival of interest in Bach’s music.
Within weeks of his success with Bach’s St. Matthew, the 20-year-old Mendelssohn departed Berlin for Great Britain on the first part of a planned “grand tour” around Europe. Arriving in London in April 1829, Felix was met by his childhood friend Karl Klingemann and set about getting acquainted with the city. Arranged introductions from his father, uncle, and teachers during the next three months gave Mendelssohn access to many of London’s finest musical artists and resulted in his successful London debuts both as a composer and as a piano soloist (performances included his own two-piano concerto and First Symphony, as well as Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, played from memory).
At the end of the London concert season, Mendelssohn and Klingemann set off to walk across parts of Scotland. Its “wild and rugged” landscapes held particular appeal for anyone with Romantic ideas of nature and art in the early 19th century, and the two friends filled the composer’s notebook — with Mendelssohn drawing landscape scenes and Klingemann writing accompanying poetic verses. From Edinburgh on July 30, Mendelssohn sent a letter to his family about his visit to the Palace of Holyrood House: “In the mists of twilight today, we went to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; the chapel . . . has now lost its roof . . . and it is at that broken-down altar that Mary was crowned Queen of Scots. Everything there is crumbling and decaying. . . . I think I may have found the beginnings of my Scottish Symphony.”
In Mendelssohn’s notebook from that same day, he wrote out the musical phrase that now opens the symphony. Later that year, back home in Berlin, he created an outline for an entire “Scottish Symphony,” but it would be more than ten years before he managed to complete this new work. More quickly, he used impressions and musical sketches from his trip to Scotland to write the Hebrides Overture, at first known as Fingal’s Cave, which the composer premiered on his second trip to London, in 1832. (The success of Hebrides over the following decade, as well as its thematic similarities to the eventual symphony, hinted at the symphony’s Scottish-ness even before Mendelssohn publicly admitted any connection.)
During the decade between 1830 and 1840, while occasionally trying to advance his Scottish symphony, Mendelssohn completed and premiered his three other mature symphonies (now known as Nos. 5, 4, and 2, numbered in the order in which they were published rather than when they were written).
Additionally, through his work as chief conductor — first in Düsseldorf and then of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra — Mendelssohn gained important practical perspective on how scores come to life in performance. In Leipzig, in addition to his own works, he conducted the symphonies of Beethoven, works by Mozart, Berlioz, and Weber, the posthumous premiere of Franz Schubert’s newly discovered “Great” C-Major Symphony in 1839, and the premiere of Robert Schumann’s First Symphony in 1841.
Thus, by the time Mendelssohn finally sat down to complete his “Scottish Symphony” in 1841, he had achieved new understanding and maturity as an orchestral composer. The completion came easily. He signed the new score in mid-January 1842 and scheduled its premiere for the following month. It was first performed as “Symphony in A minor” and published later that year as “Symphony No. 3.” (Although Mendelssohn had always referred privately to the work as his “Scottish” Symphony, the title was not officially added until after his death.)
To help underline the cohesiveness of his new symphony’s thematic materials, Mendelssohn instructed that the four movements be performed attacca, without pauses. The lack of customary breaks between movements caused some confusion for the audience at the premiere in Leipzig. The fact was so commented on in reviews that, at the work’s second performance three weeks later, the audience anticipated the breaks and stopped the performance with applause after each of the two middle movements, completely foiling the composer’s intentions. Later composers have picked up on the idea, however, and modern audiences are now much more used to having movements conjoined for the greater sense of continuity it affords.
The Symphony is cast in the customary four movements, with two shorter ones between the opening and finale. The second movement features a dance-like lilt, in contrast to the slower and quieter third movement. While no musical themes are actually shared between movements, the material throughout the symphony is thematically related and carries a strong unity of sound and atmosphere.
In the preface to the printed score of the symphony, the composer suggested a particular way of listing the movements in a printed program, as shown on page 61 of this book. In this, he indicated tempo markings that differ slightly from those that actually precede each movement, giving performers a nuance of additional information about his intentions.
Mendelssohn quotes no actual Scottish melodies, although in the second movement he does make use of a rhythm known as a “Scottish snap.” This, and an overall feeling similar to his earlier Hebrides Overture, can give listeners a sense that the symphony is little more than some additional Scottish landscape painting in sound. But, like Mendelssohn’s sunny “Italian” Symphony, this work is more of an atmospheric piece about emotional feelings in and around Scotland than any attempt to depict actual places or — as has also been suggested — historic events. The “Scottish” Symphony is not, therefore, some kind of musical Braveheart, recounting in sound various battles and victories in Scottish history. Rather, it is a classically formed symphony agreeably touched by Romantic impressions from a visit to Scotland.
Throughout the work, there are a number of passages that remind many listeners of the symphonies of Robert Schumann. The two men were certainly well acquainted with one another’s works, and Schumann’s First and Fourth Symphonies were premiered in Leipzig during the year that Mendelssohn was completing his “Scottish” Symphony (Schumann’s First was conducted by Mendelssohn himself). Exactly who was influencing whom would require an extensive discussion, however, and any similarities are more an indication of a common approach to some of the inherent challenges of symphonic writing in the footsteps of Beethoven and Schubert. Mendelssohn’s passages often feature an airiness of orchestration that took Schumann several more years to fully capture. Likewise, some energetic string writing about halfway into the “Scottish” Symphony’s first movement has strong pre-echoes of the sound of rain-filled windstorms depicted in Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, written only a few years later.
In both the first and last movements, Mendelssohn succeeds in orchestrating passages that sound, as he wanted them to, “clear and strong, like a choir of men’s voices,” advancing his extensive interest in and knowledge of choral writing. Particularly spirited in the last movement, the “choir” leads directly into the work’s robust and cheer-filled ending. —Eric Sellen © 2017
2017-18 is Eric Sellen’s twenty-fifth season as The Cleveland Orchestra’s program book editor.