Skip to page content


Listen to audio:

Composed: 1829-1842

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

About this Piece

A lover of the British Isles, the German composer Felix Mendelssohn was inspired by a visit to Scotland in 1829 to write two important works: the Fingal’s Cave Overture and the “Scottish” Symphony. In relation to the latter, he wrote at length of his impressions of a visit to the rugged ruins of Holyrood: “We went, in the deep twilight, to the Palace of Holyrood, where Queen Mary lived and loved. There’s a little room to be seen there, with a winding staircase leading up to it. This the murderers ascended, and finding Rizzio, drew him out. Three chambers away is a small corner where they killed him. Everything around is broken and moldering, and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found today in the old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.”

That beginning had a lengthy gestation period after its conception in Scotland in 1829; Mendelssohn worked on his Scottish sketches when in Italy in 1831, but set them aside, not completing the work until 1842.

The strength of the work is immediately apparent in the introduction’s opening “Holyrood” theme, a somber melody sung by oboes and violas to a dour accompaniment of winds and horns. A second, more agitated, idea then appears in violins, and the two are worked out at some length until the opening theme returns underpinned by the second idea as countermelody. The main allegro section then begins with an agitated theme given in hushed tones by clarinet and strings. The tension inherent in this idea continues when the clarinet introduces the second theme as the violins stalk it with flashes of the main theme. A stormy symphonic development brings vivid pictorial imagery, and after the recapitulation, the theme of the introduction is heard briefly, rounding off the movement, which then goes directly into the Scherzo.

This is a vivacious section whose babbling main theme is given by a clarinet after a few measures of fanfare-like preparation. The movement is replete with the kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream fairy dust that Mendelssohn spread so liberally throughout all of his compositions.

An adagio third movement brings the Mendelssohn of sentimental songfulness, whereas the last movement returns to the fierce energies that characterized much of the first. (Mendelssohn originally marked the finale Allegro guerriero.) But this finale’s warlike thrust is ultimately to be canceled at movement’s end by a stately new theme in major which summons the composer’s most strenuous energies, bringing grand Germanic victory to the Scottish hostilities. 

- Orrin Howard