Symphony no. 4 in A Major,

Felix Mendelssohn (1809 - 1847)

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

In 1830, the world was Felix Mendelssohn’s for the taking. Just barely into his twenties, the young German musician had already established an international reputation as a virtuoso pianist, budding conductor, and successful composer. The previous year, he had embarked on a world tour, exploring the Scottish Highlands and enjoying societal and musical introductions in London. After returning home to Berlin in the spring and summer of 1830, he headed across the Alps via Munich and Vienna for an Italian adventure. By October, Mendelssohn reached Venice, and then travelled onto Florence where he delighted in the magnificent artworks housed in some of the most beautiful venues in the world. In November, Mendelssohn finally arrived in Rome. He entrenched himself in the city’s excellent sacred music environment, even composing some motets, cantatas, and psalm settings of his own. He also ruminated on the Italian Symphony he hoped to compose. Tours of Naples, Milan, and a return to Rome provided fresh sonic visions of the Italian countryside. The music he envisioned, however, remained in his head for some time.

It was not until 1833, after trips to Paris and London, that Mendelssohn finally penned his first complete version of what is known today as Symphony No. 4, “Italian,” op. 90. It was on a return trip to London that year that the young composer led the London Philharmonic Society premiere. Like so many of his works, the score was published posthumously in 1851. The symphony utilizes a standard four-movement formal structure. While some musicologists have questioned whether the work truly represents any sort of “Italian-ness,” the opening Allegro vivace positively shimmers with excitement, channeling Mendelssohn’s own sentiment: “Why should Italy still insist on being the land of Art when in reality it is the land of Nature, delighting every heart? No lack of music there; it echoes and vibrates on every side.” A thoughtful Andante con moto, perhaps inspired by a procession the composer witnessed in Italy,and an elegant Con moto moderato demonstrate the composer’s natural melodic tendencies. The inspiration for the finale is clear. Mendelssohn presents an energetic Saltarello, showcasing the enchanting Italian dance all the way to the last notes of the work. What a fitting way to conclude a celebration of the land known as “Bel Paese”!

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2022

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan

Symphony No. 4 in A Major, op. 90 (“Italian”)
Composer: Felix Mendelssohn

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.  As musicians, they matured early and a stream of compositions flowed from them both.   Mendelssohn was clearly one of the most important German composers of his time, infusing 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 equally at home writing Protestant oratorios such as Elijah and St. Paul and 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.

Mendelssohn’s 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, nevertheless there is a sentimental and emotive quality to them.  This is certainly true of his symphonies. Symphony No. 4, like No. 3, “Scottish,” was composed in direct response of the sights and sounds from 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). 

Traveling 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 he 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. However, a commission from the Philharmonic Society in London for several works—the princely offer 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 the composition became 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 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 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.  Mendelssohn’s reaction to the excitement and warmth of the Italian experience is palpable.  Rhythmic drive pervades the whole movement. It is 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 mind, which was a common sight at that time.  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 stems 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, medieval 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.

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2022

Performed by the Fort Collins Symphony on the concert Anxious, Tender & Jaunty at the Lincoln Center, March 2022.