Sunday, July 29, 2007

Reading Mendelssohn's 4th

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-47) lived only 38 years, but he had a tremendous impact on musical history. In 1829 it was Mendelssohn who revived J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion for the first time since Bach's death in 1750. Due to changes in taste and fashion, Bach's music had been in eclipse for some time; since Mendelssohn's pioneering work, interest in Bach has continued to grow to this day. Then, in 1839, Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of Schubert's "Great C Major" Symphony - mind you, ten years after its composer's death - a premiere that launched it directly into the heart of symphonic repertoire.

Like Bach and Schubert until Mendelssohn's time, Mendelssohn himself fell out of favor after his death. His music, full of easy-going charm and sprightly energy, hails from an early part of the Romantic period. Much of it seemed rather pale and thin next to the earthshaking utterances of Wagner and Mahler. Besides this, Mendelssohn's Jewish background became a liability, even in his native country, during an era of unparalleled antisemitism. Nevertheless Mendelssohn is now increasingly recognized for his skill and inspiration as an original composer whose works include sacred oratorios (St. Paul, Elijah), his works for organ and piano, his cantata The First Walpurgis Night, his violin concerto, his overtures, chamber and vocal music, and of course, his symphonies.

Besides five numbered symphonies for full orchestra, Mendelssohn left behind a dozen symphonies for strings, which he wrote as a child prodigy. They sound like late Haydn or early Schubert, only without woodwinds. Due to this early-blooming genius, his family's wealth and their intellectual connections (his grandfather was the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn), young Felix had the best teachers and plenty of room for his creative muse to grow, even within the space of his short but happy life. Some have argued that all this made composing too easy for Mendelssohn, and therefore his music sometimes flows so smoothly that it doesn't stick in the mind. This cannot be said, at any rate, for two of his symphonies: the 3rd or "Scottish" Symphony, and the one on today's playlist, the 4th or "Italian." They are both pleasing to the ear and memorable, both charming and exciting. They deserve their place on the list of symphonic standards from now until the last orchestra plays its last chord.

You really don't need to do any analysis to appreciate the A-major symphony by Mendelssohn. I think it will immediately appeal to you, from beginning to end. However, there are some interesting things about it. Inspired by Mendelssohn's travels in Italy, the piece was first played in 1833, but the composer was never fully satisfied with it. He continued to make revisions on it, so it wasn't published until after his death. Even now one can hear performances, or recordings, of multiple versions (including a simplified version for "beginner" orchestras, which is quite striking to an ear that knows the standard version well). Another interesting factoid is that both this symphony and the "Scottish" have often been praised for capturing the spirit of the countries that inspired them...though some of the people who have said so were confused about which symphony was which!

The "Italian" Symphony is lovely from one end to the other. The first movement sparkles with cheerful energy. The second has an ancient mystique about it, the third is captivatingly gracious and tender, and the fourth is full of dancelike fury and dramatic fire. There is hardly a bar in the whole piece that doesn't partake of a memorable melodic phrase. It all goes down very easily. But there are some odd things in it that deserve to be pointed out; perhaps they will help you appreciate Mendelssohn's craftsmanship all the more.

Movement I, an effervescent sonata in A major, opens abruptly with a joyful, skipping melody over the kind of accompaniment that must make wind-instrument players want to put ice on their tongues afterward. The second theme is less hurried, but has a similarly skipping character and attractive good-humor. The eye-opener in this movement is the development section, which is dominated by a minor-key theme that appears nowhere in the exposition. It comes back in the recap as well, increasingly combined with a fragment of the first theme.

Movement II begins with a plaintive, minor-key/modal lament, often accompanied only by a steadily marching bass-line. This archaic-sounding melody returns after two contrasting sections featuring a more up-to-date, Romantic sound, forming a nice ABABA structure.

Movement III is an equally touching, gentle dance number with long-breathed, somewhat asymmetrical phrases. The trio section begins with a horn fanfare that, tonally, seems to come from a great distance, and which develops into a passage of military bearing, in contrast to the silky-smooth dance that eventually returns.

Movement IV, finally, is a breathlessly rapid saltarello which, most unusually for the finale of an A-major symphony, is quite firmly in A minor! If any wind players have survived the first movement, this one is sure to finish them off. If you see a flautist swishing and spitting Ben-Gay, he may be practicing for this piece. Nevertheless, it brings the symphony to a thrilling finish which, thanks to its rhythmic flash, doesn't lack for brightness in spite of the minor key.

Head's up! This is the tenth part of our original "Bakers' Dozen" of Symphonies. If you're listening along, you might want to start getting ready for Assignment Two, so we can start right in on them after the last three symphonies from Assignment One. So here's what I suggest for the second Baker's Dozen:
  • Haydn, No. 100 in G, "Military"
  • Haydn, No. 104 in D, "London"
  • Mozart, No. 39 in E-flat
  • Beethoven, No. 9 in D minor, "Choral"
  • Schubert, No. 5 in B-flat
  • Mendelssohn, No. 3 in A minor, "Scottish"
  • Schumann, No. 2 in C
  • Brahms, No. 1 in C minor
  • Antonín Dvořák, No. 9 in E minor, "From the New World"
  • Peter Tchaikovsky, No. 6 in B minor, "Pathétique"
  • Anton Bruckner, No. 7 in E
  • Jean Sibelius, No. 5 in E-flat
  • Sergei Prokofiev, No. 1 in D, "Classical"

IMAGES: Mendelssohn; last page of the 1833 version of the Italian Symphony; last page of the 1834 ditto; the house in Leipzig where Mendelssohn died.

EDIT: Beginning about 1:40 into the video below, Volker Hartung conducts the Cologne New Philharmonic in the first movement of the Italian symphony.

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