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Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 29, 1922, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Mendelssohn made his first visit to England in 1829 at the age of 20, and after successful performances in London he set off on a walking tour of Scotland that would lead him to compose two pieces. The first was the Fingal’s Cave Overture, inspired by a stormy voyage to the Hebrides Islands, but the creation of the “Scottish” Symphony proved more complex. Mendelssohn claimed to have had the initial idea for this music during a visit to the ruined Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh: “In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; a little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door... The chapel close to it is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything round is broken and mouldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I today found in that old chapel the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.”
Mendelssohn may have been precise about the inspiration for this music, but he was in no hurry to write it. Not until 1842, thirteen years after his trip to Scotland, did he complete this symphony (listed as No. 3, it is actually the last of his five symphonies). Though Mendelssohn referred to it as his “Scottish” Symphony, no one is sure what that nickname means. This music tells no tale, paints no picture, nor does it quote Scottish tunes. In fact, Mendelssohn loathed folk music, and it was during this walking tour that he unloaded a famous broadside: “No national music for me! Ten thousand devils take all nationality! Now I am in Wales and, dear me, a harper sits in the hall of every reputed inn, playing incessantly so-called national melodies; that is to say, the most infamous, vulgar, out-of-tune trash, with a hurdygurdy going on at the same time. It’s maddening, and has given me a toothache already.”
If one did not know that it bore the nickname “Scottish,” there would be little in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 to suggest anything distinctively Scottish. And in fact Mendelssohn’s friend Robert Schumann humiliated himself on just this issue. He had been sent a copy of the score and wrote a review of it under the impression that he was writing about Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. So convinced was he of the Italian-ness of this music that he singled out for special praise its “beautiful Italian pictures, so beautiful as to compensate a hearer who had never been to Italy.”
In his preface to the score, Mendelssohn had originally marked the finale Allegro guerriero, and some critics have taken their cue from this and claimed to hear the sound of a battle between Scottish warriors in the last movement. Others have heard a depiction of windswept moors, but all these critics are guessing wildly.
The four movements of this Symphony, played without pause, are unified around the somber opening melody – the theme inspired by the visit to Holyrood Chapel – which appears in quite different forms throughout. Played by winds and divided violas, it opens the slow introduction; when the music leaps ahead at the Allegro un poco agitato, the violins’ surging main theme is simply a variation of the slow introduction. The first movement alternates a nervous, insistent quality with moments of silky calm, and all of these moods are built from that same material. A tempestuous climax trails off into quiet, and Mendelssohn brings back part of the introduction as a bridge to the second movement.
Mendelssohn was famous for his scherzos, and the second movement of this Symphony, marked Vivace non troppo, is one of his finest. It is actually in sonata form (and in 2/4 rather than the 3/4 standard in scherzos). Throughout, there is a sense of rustling motion – the music’s boundless energy keeps it pushing forward at every instant. Solo clarinet has the swirling first theme, and some have identified this tune’s extra final accent as the “Scottish snap” (though typical of Scottish folk music, such extra cadential accents are part of the folk music of many nations). The scherzo rushes to its quiet close and proceeds directly into the Adagio, which alternates a long and graceful main idea marked cantabile with a martial fanfare as a second theme.
Out of the quiet conclusion of the third movement, the finale explodes. Marked Allegro vivacissimo, this movement is full of fire and excitement (this is the one originally marked Allegro guerriero), beginning with the violins’ dancing, dotted opening idea. Near the end Mendelssohn springs a surprise: back comes the simple melody that opened the symphony, but now – marked Allegro maestoso assai and set in bright A major – that once-simple melody has acquired an unexpected nobility, and it drives the Symphony to an energetic conclusion.
Many regard the “Scottish” Symphony as Mendelssohn’s finest orchestral work, but no one can explain that nickname satisfactorily. Rather than searching for the sound of gathering clans or hearing bits of Scottish folktunes or seeing windswept moors in this music, it may be simplest – and safest – to regard this as a work inspired by one specific Scottish impression, which then evolved ingeniously into an entire symphony.
Annotator Eric Bromberger is a frequent speaker at the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Upbeat Live preconcert series.