Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 “Scottish”
b. Hamburg, Germany / February 3, 1809; d. Leipzig, Germany / November 4, 1847
A young, early nineteenth-century man of means could expect a “grand tour” of Europe as part of his education. Mendelssohn had already visited several countries when his father, a wealthy banker, sent him off on a further three-year expedition in April 1829. The composer had earlier begun the practice, common to many artists of the day, of creating impressions of his travels. He used Swiss melodies, for example in one of his early, unnumbered symphonies after a trip there in 1822. All he needed to inspire further travel-related music was the right stimulus.
He stopped first in England before he and his traveling companion Karl Klingemann headed north to Scotland. A visit to the ruined chapel of Holyrood Castle near Edinburgh sparked Mendelssohn’s imagination. “This evening in the deep twilight,” he wrote home on July 30, “we went to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; there is a small room with a winding staircase leading up to it...The adjacent chapel has lost its roof; grass and ivy grow thickly within; and on the broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything there is in ruins and ramshackle, open to the blue sky. I think I have today found the opening of my Scottish Symphony.”
The tour continued to Italy in May 1830. Mendelssohn kept working on the new symphony, but gradually the sunny Mediterranean climate dissipated the call of his Celtic muse. “The loveliest time of the year in Italy is the period from April 15 to May 15,” he wrote home from Rome in 1831. “Who then can blame me for not being able to return to the mists of Scotland? I have therefore laid aside the symphony for the present.”
“The present” turned out to be 10 years, resulting in the Scottish Symphony being a more polished and mature work than it would have been had he brought it to term all at once. During that interim period he completed the “Italian” Symphony. He finished the “Scottish” in Berlin on January 20, 1842, and conducted the first performance in Leipzig six weeks later.
The success of a performance in London led to his receiving permission to dedicate it to one of his deepest admirers, England’s Queen Victoria. During a royal command visit to Buckingham Palace in 1842, Mendelssohn entertained the Queen and her husband, Prince Albert, by performing some of his own pianos pieces, improvising simultaneously on Rule, Britannia and the Austrian national anthem, and accompanying the monarchs as they sang his songs.
No authentic Scottish folk tunes have been identified in Mendelssohn’s Symphony. It seems likely that he intended it more as an atmospheric portrait of the county than a direct tribute founded on homegrown culture.
Seeking the enhance its flow and continuity, he directed that the four movements be played as a continuous whole. It opens with a quiet, plaintive, darkly colored introduction based upon the “Holyrood Castle” theme. This leads to a highly active and dramatic first movement proper. Mendelssohn offered only token relaxation through a sad, sighing second theme. The second movement is a jaunty, featherweight scherzo in which the influence of Scottish folk music is felt strongly.
The third movement is a slow, almost mournful procession which grows increasingly forceful. The warlike finale is highly rhythmic, with materials passed about rapidly between the sections of the orchestra. As in the first movement, the tumult dies down to a whisper. This time the music rises up in glory through a majestic, hymn-like transformation of the “Holyrood Castle” theme. It spreads rapidly throughout the orchestra, setting upon the symphony an uplifting seal of triumph.
Program Notes by Don Anderson © 2018