The Symphony No. 3 by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) is such a sturdy repertoire staple that its familiarity can easily disguise its ambiguities. For instance, it’s widely known as the “Scottish” Symphony—but how Scottish is it really? On the one hand, there’s agreement that the initial inspiration came to Mendelssohn in 1829, during the same trip to Scotland that motivated the Hebrides Overture (performed by Symphoria last season). In fact, he sketched out what became the opening theme as a musical portrait of the ruins of Holyrood Chapel, central to the story of Mary Queen of Scots. Then, too, many listeners hear the influence of Scottish folk music (heavily refined) throughout. For instance, the first theme of the Scherzo is pentatonic (that is, it uses a five-note scale common in folk music from around the world, including Scotland), and it’s got a “scotch snap” (a dotted figure in which the first, accented note is the short one). And it would be hard to dispute the claim of anyone who heard the clear, bracing air of the highlands in the final section.
On the other hand, there’s good reason to play down the symphony’s connection to Scotland. Mendelssohn completed it in 1842, well after his trip. Although he sometimes referred to the work as his “Scottish” symphony, the nickname doesn’t appear on the score. And whatever distillation of Scottish music can be heard, there are no actual Scottish tunes.
Formally, too, the symphony has ambiguities that hamper any attempt to describe it. On the surface, it’s a standard four-movement work, although the slow movement comes after, rather than before, the scherzo. But the first movement begins with an introduction of such unprecedented length that it could easily seem a movement in itself (it’s only a minute or so shorter than the entire second movement)—especially since, as conductor Larry Loh puts it, “it’s one of the most beautiful introductions in the repertoire.” Then, too, just as the fourth movement seems to be winding down to a gentle, resigned conclusion, Mendelssohn surprises us with a long, stirring coda labelled “Finale Maestoso,” wrenching us from minor to major and from 4/4 to 6/8, and introducing new thematic material—again, a section with enough individual character to seem almost an independent movement.
So does it really have four movements, or does it have five? Or six? Or perhaps it only has one? For as he was to do in his Violin Concerto, Mendelssohn asks that the Third Symphony be played without pause, producing what Larry calls a single “journey from the beginning to end”—and the major problem he sees facing the conductor is handling the transitions so that it “feels like it’s a through-composed piece.” To make the organization even tighter, there are subtle thematic links among the movements, too.
Whatever the ambiguities about its inspiration or its shape, there’s no ambiguity about its quality. The numbering of Mendelssohn’s symphonies doesn’t match their order of composition—and the Third was the last he composed. He was at the height of his powers, and the work has a confident melodic surge from beginning to end. It’s also orchestrated with transparency and finesse, especially for the woodwinds. One of Larry’s favorite moments is the clarinet solo that launches the second movement. First clarinetist Allan Kolsky, unsurprisingly, agrees—although, as he points out, there are wonderful solos for the clarinet in all of the movements. But it’s not just solos: Mendelssohn created an exquisite sense of ensemble, and Allan always looks forward to the extended duet with the first bassoon (enriched with some contributions by the second clarinet) just before the “Finale Maestoso”: “beautiful, lyrical wind writing.”
There are at least two links between the Mendelssohn and the Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). The first is stylistic. If we accept the fundamental distinction between classical and romantic approaches to composition, the two works go together well, since Mendelssohn was the most classical of the mid-19th century romantics, and Beethoven was the most romantic of the great composers of the classical period. As a result, both works require the performers to maintain a treacherous balance between the competing idioms—especially difficult in the concerto’s first movement where, as Symphoria violinist Sonya Williams puts it, the soloist has to preserve a classical purity against the more romantic outbursts by the orchestra.
The second link is historical. This concerto is, for Sonya, “a clear turning point.” Until its composition, there was no other violin concerto in the standard repertoire —in fact, no other concerto of any sort—on quite this scale. As a result, she says, anyone who plays this work feels as if they are “participating in history” in a way they don’t feel with other concertos. And Mendelssohn had a lot to do with the public recognition of its significance.
Beyond his work as a composer, Mendelssohn served as an important conductor. Although he’s most famous, in this respect, for resurrecting Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, he was on the podium for the revival of the Beethoven Violin Concerto as well. Beethoven had originally composed this work for the young virtuoso Franz Clement; but even though the composer was turning out masterpieces at a terrific clip (he’d just finished the Eroica Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Razumovsky Quartets), the first performance of the concerto was by most accounts a failure—and the work remained a rarity until the violin prodigy Joseph Joachim performed it with Mendelssohn in London in 1844. Since then, its status has risen to the point where, as Larry puts it, it is “a measuring stick against which other concertos are compared.” Clement was in his mid-20s when he premiered it, and Joachim was only twelve when he brought it back. But since then, it’s become such a cultural monument that, as Larry points out, “many soloists will play it as late as possible,” putting it off “until they are very mature.”
It’s not just the cultural status of the work that terrifies young violinists—it’s also the nature of the interpretive challenges, especially in the massive first movement. Those challenges are set up in the orchestral introduction. It begins mysteriously with gentle taps on the solo timpani which melt into a delicious woodwind passage featuring what Larry describes as “an almost child-like, nursery rhyme kind of tune.” But almost before we can settle into the mood, we’re pushed aside by flashes of that fiery temperament we generally associate with middle-period Beethoven (think of the Fifth Symphony, only a year or so away). When the soloist enters, he or she not only needs to hold out, as Sonya suggests, against this vehemence (maintaining a sublime beauty of tone), but also needs to keep his or her bearing in a lengthy movement that makes the greatest demands on stamina. To make the challenges even greater, as concertmaster Peter Rovit points out, the soloist has to make his or her points without virtuoso fireworks to “keep you and the listener busy. Beethoven’s solo part is a little bit more naked. There’s nowhere to hide: the writing is very pure. It’s all about tone and musicianship.” No composer up to that point had hurled such interpretive challenges at the violin—and few since. The remaining two movements are shorter and a bit less strenuous—but the lyrical beauties of the second (a theme and variations) and the warm humor of the finale certainly demand the same virtues of tone and musicianship.
Peter J. Rabinowitz | prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org