Mendelssohn’s “The Scottish Symphony” January 20, 2019 Concert

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Forward At Last

by Benjamin Pomerance

Beethoven was dead. The man’s passing was already a few years old; the customary rituals of mourning had ended long ago. But over the Western world, the legend’s specter hung as heavily as a soggy blanket. Under this weight, every composer felt trapped. Beethoven had revolutionized the art of symphonic writing, reeling off seemingly wild artistic gambles that all seemed to end in jackpots. Nobody had created works like this before. Now, with composers and critics and audiences lionizing the departed, it felt as if nobody would do so again, either.

A successor would not be easily found. No less a genius than Johannes Brahms openly declared his fear at the prospects of writing a symphony, intentionally confining his compositions to other forms. Robert Schumann confessed to similar apprehensions.  And so the story went for every composer who had witnessed the supernova of Beethoven, venerating the past but ducking any opportunities to try to build upon the new musical foundations that Beethoven had created.

But then — as stories of succession always seem to go — a brash newcomer entered the scene. By the age of twenty, Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy had already seized Europe’s spotlight with an iron grip and a smile. Extraordinarily gifted not only as a composer, but also as a pianist and a conductor, Mendelssohn quickly assumed rock star status throughout the continent. He even possessed the one successful attribute that Beethoven lacked: boyish charm. Women wanted to be with him. Men wanted to become him. Glory was guaranteed.

Only such a man would dare to publish his first symphony in 1824, the same year that Beethoven’s transformative Symphony No. 9 hit the stage, a creation that understandably drew lavish attention from reviewers. Only such an audacious character would have the courage to make his London debut only two years after Beethoven’s death, staking his own claim to fame and thumbing his nose at the titan’s shadow. Only such an impudent individual would capture the hearts of London’s audiences and then, abruptly, announce that he was going on vacation.

Yet there was nothing that Mendelssohn seemed to enjoy more than vacation. Outgoing and impressionable, he reveled in the presence of cultures away from his home, soaking in their sights and sounds and stories and traditions. In 1823, after a family vacation in Switzerland, the fourteen-year-old Mendelssohn incorporated quotes from Swiss folk songs into two symphonies for string instruments. Sonic hints from other travels wound up in two masterpieces that he wrote while still a teenager: his Octet and his overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Music, however, was not the art form on Mendelssohn’s mind when he left London for a vacation in Scotland with Karl Klingemann, a German diplomat who became one of Mendelssohn’s closest friends. Instead, visual arts were the primary objectives of his trip. As a young child, Mendelssohn took lessons from landscape painter Johann Gottlob Samuel Rosel, who frequently asserted that Mendelssohn would have made a fine career as a painter. So it came as no surprise that Mendelssohn, seeking to escape the pressures of the stage, brought his sketch book with him on his Scottish jaunt, hoping to encounter interesting subjects to draw.

He expected the highlight of the trip to be a meeting with Sir Walter Scott, whose narrative poems Mendelssohn adored. A bagpipe competition in Edinburgh was another highly anticipated venture. In his characteristically romantic prose, he recorded his observations of the Scottish capital. “Everything here looks so stern and robust, half enveloped in a haze of smoke or fog,” he declared. “Many Highlanders came in costume from church victoriously leading their sweethearts in their Sunday attire and casting magnificent and important looks over the world.”

Two days after penning that letter, Mendelssohn and Klingemann decided to visit the nearby ruined palace of Holyrood. The place appeared on all of the “can’t miss” lists concerning Scotland, with visitors flocking to gawk at the site where Mary, Queen of Scots, purportedly engaged in a torrid affair with David Rizzio, a poor Italian lute player. Predictably, the queen’s husband, Lord Darnley, did not share his wife’s adoration for the foreign musician. Joined by several co-conspirators, he trapped Rizzio in the castle one night and stabbed him fifty-six times.

It was a peculiar place to find an inspiration of beauty. Yet while wandering through the remains of the stone chapel near the site of Rizzio’s murder, Mendelssohn felt an inexplicable twinge of desire. “The chapel close to [the place of Rizzio’s stabbing] is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at the broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of England,” he wrote in a letter. “Everything around is broken and moldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I have found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish symphony.”

Below those prophetic words, Mendelssohn scribbled ten measures of music. Today, performers and listeners recognize these notes as the introductory theme of Mendelssohn’s symphony that now bears the “Scottish” subtitle.

All of which indicates that the composition came to Mendelssohn in a blaze of furious stimulation, motivated entirely by that visit to Holyrood. In reality, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Mendelssohn and Klingemann continued their travels for nearly another month, with Mendelssohn stopping frequently to sketch whatever landscape happened to catch his eye. After visiting the Hebrides, a group of islands extending off the western coast of Scotland, he began sketching a new work: an overture inspired by these lands and their folklore.

After returning home to Germany, Mendelssohn quickly repacked his bags and departed for another vacation. This time, Italy was the chosen destination, personally recommended by the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who first befriended Mendelssohn when the writer was seventy-two years old and the precocious composer only twelve. In Rome, he finished the overture inspired by the Hebrides, and became sidetracked by the rapid development of a new symphony, this one inspired by the sites, colors, and weather of Italy.

But the “Scottish” symphony languished. For possibly the first time and last time in his life, the composer confronted genuine writer’s block. “The Scottish symphony alone is not yet quite to my liking,” he wrote to his sister Fanny in February 1831. “If any brilliant idea occurs to me, I will seize it at once, quickly write it down, and finish it at last.”

Ten years passed before such an idea finally materialized. The pages gathered dust until Mendelssohn, abruptly induced by reasons unknown, suddenly picked up the score again and crafted it to culmination. By now, though, he was far away from the misty twilight at Holyrood that had inspired those atmospheric opening bars. As if to demonstrate his evolution, he intentionally tried to leave any overtly Scottish music out of the remainder of the piece. “No national music for me!” he stated. “Infamous, vulgar, out-of-tune trash.”

So perhaps the “Scottish” Symphony is the most inaptly named composition in the history of Western music. But beyond this twist of nomenclature resides a work of depth and beauty, the most mature symphonic offering that Mendelssohn would ever write. The brooding introduction, the lightning-quick scherzo, the sumptuously slow song without words, the warlike finale with its majestic conclusion — all are representative of a composer utilizing old traditions but stating them with a clear new voice.

Inevitably, the comparisons with Beethoven rose. Parallels with the master’s “Pastoral” Symphony remain particularly rampant to this day. But in his review of the work in 1842, Robert Schumann declared that it represented a worthy successor to Beethoven’s symphonies, a sentiment that plenty of commentators echoed. For the first time since Beethoven’s passing, the alabaster wall around the development of new and bold symphonies had tumbled.

Which is why, more than a hundred and fifty years after the “Scottish” Symphony’s premiere, this composition is best remembered for something other than its stubbornly retained title. In its conception, the “Scottish” Symphony is indeed a work of introspection, evoking a mood inspired by the ruins of an empire’s past. But in its completion, and in its deserving legacy, this composition signifies the coda to walking on tiptoe around Beethoven’s ghost, the first symphonic leap toward Western music’s next evolutions — a chance to move forward at last.

The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra performs Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony as the final work on their program on Sunday, January 20, at Proctor’s Theatre. For tickets, call (518) 346-6204.

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