30 Oct 2012

Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 3 in A Minor “Scottish”

By Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings.

Duration: 40 minutes in four movements (performed without pauses).

THE COMPOSER – FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) – Friedrich Wilhelm IV ascended to the Prussian throne in 1840 after the death of his father. He did much during that first year to breath new cultural life into Berlin, including the offering of a position to a somewhat reluctant Mendelssohn. The details of his employment took some time to sort out and he ultimately settled on a lesser salary and split his professional schedule with Leipzig.

THE MUSIC – In 1842, Mendelssohn completed his 3rd Symphony while in Berlin but conducted the premiere later that year in the city he still very much preferred, Leipzig. He performed it again in England a few months later and dedicated it to Queen Victoria. Numbers notwithstanding, this was actually the last symphony Mendelssohn ever composed. His inspiration for it dated back to a previous trip to Britain in 1829 and a particular visit to the Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh. Mendelssohn made some sketches at the time but set the music aside until 1841, a long enough delay that the “Scottishness” of the symphony would have been difficult to identify had he not repeatedly referred to it himself. Without a single quoted folk melody, the symphony was sufficiently devoid of reference to Scotland that it elicited one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of music criticism when Robert Schumann (on bad information) wrote glowingly of the symphony’s beautiful “Italian” portraiture. Mendelssohn, for his part, was never confused about his motivation. His notes from the 1829 sojourn speak quite clearly about having “found today the beginning of my Scotch Symphony” and he later commented on having trouble finding “his way back into the Scottish fog mood” when trying to complete the score in the 1830s. The unifying theme that opens the symphony is a solemn utterance, suggesting that Mendelssohn did eventually recall that misty scene in the ruins of Holyrood.

THE WORLD – The Webster-Ashburton Treaty was signed in 1842, resolving the border between Maine and Canada. Also that year, Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol published Dead Souls and the First Anglo-Afghan War came to an end.

THE CONNECTION – Mendelssohn 3 is often thematically programmed with the Scottish Fantasy. This occurred for the Utah Symphony in 2006 with Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducting.