Length: c. 27 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First LA Phil performance: February 26, 2009, James Conlon conducting
Mendelssohn’s First Symphony was, strictly speaking, his 13th. He had written a dozen string symphonies between 1821 and 1823, and even added winds to one of them, but the 15-year-old Mendelssohn considered these compositions by the 12-to-14-year-old Mendelssohn as student works, and saw the new, bigger, bolder symphony in C minor as the masterpiece that would serve notice on the musical world that it had a new contender. He never entirely abandoned that view, though he waffled a bit. It was the work he took on tour with him during the next few years, and he made a point of publishing it, something he did not do with his “Italian” and “Scottish” symphonies. On the other hand, when he conducted it in London in 1829 he substituted an orchestrated version of the scherzo from the Octet for the Symphony’s original minuet. He doubtless thought the Octet scherzo, a dazzlingly original piece, would make a sensation. In 1834 he published the Symphony with the original minuet.
The First Symphony might surprise the casual Mendelssohnian with its dramatic vigor and muscularity. Mendelssohn is not known for expressing portent, tragedy, tumult, or fear in his music, which is the major reason there was a vogue in the early 20th century for dismissing him as a lightweight. He was perfectly capable of writing music of dramatic power, but his inspiration usually took him in other directions.
In the First Symphony’s fast movements, he seems, like anyone who came after Beethoven, to be wrestling with the concept of what a symphony should be and what it should express. So a dose of Beethovenian weightiness was to be expected from a composer introducing himself to the symphonic world. The relaxed slow movement, which starts as a simple song and becomes steadily more intricate, is a marked contrast.
Conventional hindsight about symphonic third movements holds that Beethoven replaced the minuet with the scherzo and the matter was settled, but it didn’t necessarily look that way to composers in the 1820s. A glance through the symphonies of the prominent composers who didn’t happen to be Beethoven (most of them unknown or barely known to the modern audience) turns up both minuets and scherzos, and it is not clear whether composers thought they were being conservative with the one or cutting-edge with the other. More likely, they simply recognized that they had a choice. Mendelssohn’s 12 string symphonies have four minuets and two scherzos among them. The minor-key minuet in the First Symphony, with its syncopated push and pull, harks back to the minuet in Mozart’s G-minor Symphony (No. 40). The middle section, which manages to be lyrical, stately, and idyllic at the same time, is pure Mendelssohn.
The melodic and rhythmic contours of the finale’s principal theme are again strongly reminiscent of Mozart’s G-minor Symphony, but the movement takes on a major-key heroic bent by the end. If the triumphant coda seems a bit tacked on, the same could be said of works by far more experienced hands.
— Howard Posner