Symphony No. 3, op. 56 (“Scottish”)

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        Mendelssohn was a prodigy, born into a distinguished family of Jewish bankers and philosophers.  He and his sister Fanny--also a talented composer, conductor, and pianist—were raised in a warm, intellectual, highly supportive artistic family.  They matured early, and a stream of musical compositions flowed from them both.   Mendelssohn was clearly one of the most important German composers of his time, and infused the expressiveness of early romantic music with the clarity and intellectuality of Mozart and Haydn’s classicism.  This exquisite balance found expression in a wide variety of musical genres; Mendelssohn was as at home writing Protestant oratorios such as Elijah and St. Paul as he was composing chamber music and symphonies.   He created a significant body of work in his relatively short life, including major works for orchestra that constitute an important part of today’s repertoire.   These works (from his maturity) include six concert overtures, six concertos, and five symphonies.

        His musical style reflects, to a large degree, his upbringing and his personality—it speaks of discipline, balance, and an overall cheerful, largely untroubled mien.   While his compositions reflect solicitude for clear, balanced musical structures, and an obvious avoidance of excess of romantic emotion and empty virtuosity, there is nevertheless a sentimental and emotive quality to them.  And this is certainly true of his symphonies.  The numbering of them is hopelessly confusing; suffice it say that Symphony No. 3 was the last composed of the five.  Like some others of Mendelssohn’s works, to a degree it is a reflection of his travels, in this case to Scotland in1829.  He visited the ruins of Holyrood Castle, where he conceived the opening of the “Scottish” symphony, later going on to visit Sir Walter Scott, the Highlands, and the Hebrides Islands.  The symphony—not finished until 1842—is in general, a somewhat darker composition than most of the composer’s works.   It is innovative in the sense that Mendelssohn called for the connection of all four movements in performance—a characteristic that later composers adopted to create the single-movement tone poem.

        The first movement is prefaced by a slow introduction, followed by the faster movement, proper. The basic motive heard in the introduction will be encountered not only in the ensuing fast section, but also throughout the symphony—quite progressive for a composer of that time.  The expected dance-like movement (usually heard as a third movement, but here is second) opens with the tune in the clarinet, in a distinct Scottish folk style.  Mendelssohn continues his innovations by couching this movement in two counts, rather than the usual three counts, to a bar.   It’s almost more than a dance in its rather wild and careening scramble.  The following adagio movement has moments--including a section that sounds a bit like a funeral march--that may remind some of the solemnity of the composers’ oratorios.  The last movement is really in two large sections—the first is rather tumultuous and anxious, and includes some rather dissonant counterpoint (remember Mendelssohn’s key rôle in the revival of J. S. Bach’s works).   A rather mysterious, murky, chromatic passage in the woodwinds dissolves all that and leads us to the last part.  It’s a majestic one that includes a sonorous hymn and triumphant fanfare-like passages.  The darker moments that had thitherto set much of the mood of this last symphony are resolved in exultation.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan