Symphony No. 4 in A Major, op. 90 (“Italian”)

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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 major 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. Symphony No. 4, like No. 3, “Scottish,” was composed in direct response of the sights and sounds of his well-known travels.  As a superbly talented, and highly intellectual scion of a distinguished and wealthy family, Mendelssohn was encouraged by Goethe (and funded by his doting father) to take an extended tour of various European countries  in the years 1829-31.  Early in the tour he visited Scotland, the experience of which resulted in the afore-mentioned “Scottish” symphony, and the overture, The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave). 

            Moving on to Italy in May of 1830, he toured the major cities, including Rome, Naples, Venice, and Florence, by the time of his return to Germany in late 1831, was effusive about his experience and stimulation in Italy.  In a letter to his sister, Fanny, he spoke enthusiastically of his “Italian” symphony, and characterized it as the “happiest piece I have ever written.”  Few would argue with that description, but it took a little while for its full realization.  Upon his return to his native Germany, other affairs took precedence, but a commission from the Philharmonic Society in London for several works—the princely sum of 100 guineas surely played a part, as well—ensured the symphony’s rapid completion by early 1833.  The première was a great success, and a major contributor to the composer’s popularity in Great Britain thenceforth.  Apparently, Mendelssohn felt that what almost everyone subsequently deemed as a practically perfect piece, nevertheless needed some substantial revision and tweaking.  He apparently wrestled with the project for some years, and complained about the trouble and “bitter moments” that it had caused him.  It came to nothing.  Notwithstanding the creator’s artistic opinions, the original version has stood as the only one, and ironically is seen as perfect in every way. It was not until 1851, four years after his death, that it is was published.

            The first movement instantaneously sets the mood:  if any music may be said to be joyous, this is it!  The vigorous repeated notes of the woodwinds propel the leaping theme in the strings—and Mendelssohn’s reaction to the excitement and warmth of the Italian experience is palpable.  Rhythmic drive pervades the whole movement, not lessened in the development section, where the composer’s familiarity with J.S. Bach’s contrapuntal wizardry comes to the fore.  A few long held notes in the oboe heralds the recapitulation of a marvelously spirited and happy movement—no wonder it has almost become a cliché for those in the media who have appropriated it.

            The second movement—traditionally a slow one—here takes the guise of an Italian procession of some kind, walking along leisurely.  A Neapolitan religious procession comes to mine—a common sight there, then.  It may be helpful to the imagination to think of the one in New York’s Little Italy in the film, “The Godfather.”  It trudges along, borne above the pizzicato strings, with a middle section in a contrasting, somewhat lighter, mood, before returning to the tranquil, melancholy main tune, ending quietly.  The third movement in the “old days” of late musical classicism would have been a minuet and trio, and Mendelssohn, ever the traditionalist, cheerfully supplies one.  Beethoven’s vigorous, energetic models for this movement still ringing in everyone’s ears are nowhere to be heard—Mendelssohn is himself, here.  This tender movement comes from an untroubled land of gentility; the important part for the horns in the middle section stem from the newly-developing sound of German romanticism, so clearly heard in the works of the composer’s countryman, Carl Maria von Weber.

            The last movement takes us back to the vivacity and élan of Italy in its driving evocation of the scintillating native dance, the saltarello.  Others have posited the presence of the tarantella, as well.  Driving breathlessly along, never relenting, Mendelssohn’s interpretation of these old, mediæval frenetic dances is an exhilarating ride.   Catapulting along to the climactic end, we sense dancers gradually reaching exhaustion, despite the constant rhythmic drive, only to reach down and pull out just enough energy to sizzle at the dynamic ending.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan