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Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
Between the ages of twelve and fourteen Mendelssohn composed thirteen symphonies for strings (with occasional surprise entries for percussion). He also produced songs, piano pieces, operas, and chamber music in astonishing profusion while all the time marching toward the maturity that emerged with the famous Octet and the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, all written before he was seventeen.
Those dozen early symphonies were discounted, and the official numbering began with this C-minor Symphony, in which the young composer, now fifteen, called for woodwinds and brass for the first time. Mendelssohn’s models were primarily Mozart and Weber, with some touches of Beethoven. His Berlin teachers had enforced a regime of counterpoint and technical orthodoxy, not that the boy needed any instruction in the intricacies of voice-leading and instrumentation. He picked that up effortlessly from his thirsty consumption of Bach, Handel, and Mozart and any music which came to hand; these early works display a classical poise and balance that he never lost, even when his horizons broadened to Shakespeare, Goethe, and romantic landscape.
The traditional symphonic sequence established by Haydn served Mendelssohn well. A fiery opening movement in the minor key allowed for a strong, forthright statement, with some milder, contrasting material introduced early in the argument. The boy composer is never short of new ideas, treated with daring dissonance and deft scoring. The coda is heralded by a surprisingly long-held note on two horns, full of expectation. We are reminded here of Beethoven, and again in the slow movement when the violins weave a flowing counterpoint to the main melody in the winds.
The third movement is headed Menuetto, although its brusque energy belies the courtly dance that the title suggests. The trio section, traditionally an opportunity for contrast, gives a chant-like melody to the clarinets and bassoons with discreet accompaniment from the strings. The process of returning to the Menuetto is then set in motion by drum taps reminiscent of a similar passage in Beethoven’s Fifth and by an unstoppable crescendo.
In the middle of the finale, whose fiery energy well matches the character of the work up to this point, Mendelssohn displays his brilliant gift for writing fugal counterpoint for strings, a gift he had perfected in the previous twelve symphonies. This passage makes a welcome return near the end, before the major key and some lusty trumpeting and drumming bring the Symphony – which was first performed March 31, 1824 – to a close.
On Mendelssohn’s first visit to London in 1829 the Philharmonic Society performed this Symphony, for which occasion he replaced the Menuetto with an orchestrated version of the Scherzo from the Octet, fairy music thus replacing fiery music. This was encored, the beginning of the immense reputation he enjoyed in London throughout his life. In gratitude he presented the Society with the original manuscript of his “first” symphony.
Hugh Macdonald is general editor of The New Berlioz Edition and a professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis.