The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Opus 56, "Scottish"

About the Work

Felix Mendelssohn Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

At age twenty, Felix Mendelssohn was a wonder. He was one of Europe's best composers, an excellent pianist, a path-breaking conductor and a visual artist of nearly professional capability, as well as a man of immense charm and personality. It is not surprising that his first appearances in London in the spring and summer of 1829 were a smashing success. He even seemed blessed by a slight speech impediment that allowed him to negotiate the "th" sound of English that plagued most German visitors. Both to relax from his hectic London schedule and to temporarily sate his obsession with travel, he reserved time in late summer, following his appearances, to tour the British countryside. He and his traveling companion, Karl Klingemann, the secretary of the Hanover Legation in London, settled on a walking tour through the Scottish Highlands; they arrived in Edinburgh on July 28th.

In a letter recounting the experiences of his first day in the Scottish capital, Mendelssohn wrote, "Everything here looks so stern and robust, half enveloped in a haze of smoke or fog. Many Highlanders came in costume from church victoriously leading their sweethearts in their Sunday attire and casting magnificent and important looks over the world; with long, red beards, tartan plaids, bonnets and feathers and naked knees and their bagpipes in their hands, they passed along by the half-ruined gray castle on the meadow where Mary Stuart lived in splendor." Two days later, he reported on his visit to Mary's castle, Holyrood: "In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Mary lived and loved. A little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door. This is the staircase the murderers ascended, and, finding Rizzio [Mary's Italian advisor and, probably, lover, whom the Scots mistrusted] ... drew him out; about three chambers away is a small corner where they killed him. The chapel close to it is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at the broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of England. 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." Then follow ten measures of music that were to become the introductory melody of the Third Symphony. Mendelssohn's Scottish adventure continued for most of August. He and Klingemann traveled on foot, stopping at whatever vista caught their fancy so that Felix could make a quick pencil sketch of the scene. Mendelssohn was most impressed by one particularly stormy prospect on the gnarled Isle of Staffa off the western coast of Scotland, an experience that gave rise to the superb Hebrides Overture. The travelers completed their strenuous journey and returned to London.

Mendelssohn occupied himself immediately with the Hebrides Overture and completed it the following year. The Symphony, however, did not come so easily. Some preliminary sketches for it were done in 1830-1831 while Mendelssohn was touring Italy, but he admitted that he found it impossible to evoke the "misty mood" of Scotland while in sun-splashed Rome, and put the work aside; it was not finished until January 1842 in Berlin. He conducted the premiere on March 3rd with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and included the new Symphony in his London concerts for that summer. Its success only added to the great acclaim already accorded Mendelssohn by the English, a phenomenon that was royally recognized when Queen Victoria granted the composer permission to dedicate the work to her.

Though Mendelssohn always referred to this work as his "Scottish" Symphony, the score was originally published as simply "Symphony No. 3," without any subtitle. (This was the last symphony he composed, but it was published third, before the No. 4, "Italian" and the No. 5, "Reformation.") Many commentators have found all manner of Scottish songs, ceremonies and sights embodied in the music. Mendelssohn, for his part, refused to apply any specific program to the work, and he even wrote censoriously of the indigenous music he heard in Scotland. "No national music for me!" he proclaimed. "Infamous, vulgar, out-of-tune trash.... It is distracting and has given me a toothache already. Scottish bagpipes, Swiss cow-horns, Welsh harps, all playing the Huntsmen's Chorus with hideously improvised variations — then their ‘beautiful' singing in the hall — altogether their music is beyond conception." It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there is little folk-like melody in this work. Mendelssohn later clarified his true inspiration for the "Scottish" Symphony: "It is in pictures, ruins and natural surroundings that I find the most music." Rather than a tonal travelogue, this is a work of deep sensibility and manly melancholy that grew from the emotions that the stern Scottish landscape and history engendered in the young Mendelssohn; it is music "more of feeling than of painting," as Beethoven said of his own "Pastoral" Symphony.

The four movements of the "Scottish" Symphony, Mendelssohn's greatest work in the genre, are directed to be played without pause. The long, brooding introduction opens with a grave harmonization of the melody that Mendelssohn conceived at Holyrood. The sonata form proper begins with a flowing theme, graceful yet filled with vigor. Other melodic inspirations follow. A stormy, thoroughly worked-out development utilizes most of the exposition's thematic material. After the recapitulation, a coda with the force of a second development section is concluded by a return of the brooding theme of the introduction. The second movement is the only one that consistently shows sunlight and high spirits. It is built around two melodies: one, skipping and animated, is introduced by the clarinet; the other, brisk and martial, is presented in the strings.

The wonderful third movement is unsurpassed in Mendelssohn's orchestral oeuvre. In melody, structure, orchestration and mood it belongs among the masterworks of the Romantic era. Cast in sonata form, its first theme is a lyrical melody of noble gait that is perfectly balanced by the elegiac second theme, characterized by its heroic, dotted rhythms. The finale is a vivacious and well-developed dance in an atmospheric minor key. The Symphony concludes with a majestic coda in a broad, swinging meter.