The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11

About the Work

Felix Mendelssohn Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
© Richard Freed

Mendelssohn completed his Symphony No. 1 in Berlin on March 31, 1824, and introduced it in a concert at his family's home there later that year. The earliest public performance of record was conducted by him in London on May 25, 1829. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.
The score, eventually dedicated to the Philharmonic Society of London, calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets in pairs, with timpani and strings. Duration, 30 minutes.

Mendelssohn was perhaps the most remarkable of all "child prodigies" among composers: to a greater degree than even the works of the very young Mozart before him, the music he composed before reaching the age of 15 shows not only a polished technical assurance but the level of substance and sheer imaginativeness we usually associate only with the most mature creative minds. Between the ages of 12 and 14 Mendelssohn composed two large-scale concertos for two pianos and orchestra, one for piano, violin and orchestra, a more concise concerto for violin and strings, several ambitious chamber works, and no fewer than twelve symphonies for string orchestra. He regarded all of these as mere juvenilia, and none of them published. He had composed a single movement of what would have been a thirteenth symphony for strings, in fact, when he abandoned that project and at age 15 composed the work for full orchestra which he at first thought to label "Sinfonia XIII," but decided instead to offer to the public as his official "Symphony No. 1." Five years later, in preparation for the first of his many happy and successful visits to England, he had the score published as his Op. 11, with a dedication to the Philharmonic Society of London, under whose auspices he conducted the work in the Argyll Rooms on May 25, 1829.

While the numbering of Mendelssohn's five full-orchestra symphonies does not conform to their actual chronology, this one in C minor was definitely the first in that cycle. Various commentators have found various influences in it. Beethoven, certainly. Remember that Beethoven was still active when the young Mendelssohn composed his earliest significant works, such as the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, the String Octet, and this symphony, which was completed in Berlin just five weeks before Beethoven introduced his Ninth Symphony in Vienna. But the suggestion that the work reflects an appreciation for Schubert has to be dismissed utterly, because Mendelssohn in 1824 could not have been familiar with any of Schubert's symphonies or string quartets—not because they hadn't been written, but simply because the symphonies hadn't been performed at all and none of the quartets had traveled beyond Vienna. Mendelssohn himself, of course, presided over the premiere of Schubert's last and greatest symphony in 1839, more than ten years after Schubert's death, and several of Schubert's other symphonies waited still longer for public exposure.

If there is a strongly felt presence other than Beethoven's or Carl Maria von Weber's suggested in this work, it is neither Schubert's nor even Haydn's, but that of Mozart: the dramatic spirit of his Symphony No. 40 in G minor may be sensed in the way Mendelssohn formed the themes for the fast movements that frame this work, and for the third movement, the minuet.

That minuet is a bit of a curiosity in a symphony composed as late as 1824, and Mendelssohn himself apparently had some reservations about it when he introduced the work in London. Five years had passed since he composed the Symphony, and for that occasion he set the minuet aside and as its replacement orchestrated the brilliant scherzo of the String Octet he had composed a year after the Symphony. His judgment, at age 20, was vindicated by the response of the musicians and their audience, as he reported in a letter home following an open rehearsal and the actual concert performance:

When I came to my rehearsal of the Symphony in the Argyll Rooms, I found the whole orchestra assembled and about two hundred guests, mostly ladies, many of them foreigners. First the Mozart Symphony in E-flat was rehearsed, and mine was to come next. I felt not precisely afraid, but very keyed-up and excited. During the Mozart rehearsal I took a little walk in Regent Street . . . When I came back everything was ready and they were waiting for me. I mounted the podium, drew my little white baton from my pocket . . . and the concertmaster, Fr. Cramer, showed me how the musicians were positioned. Those in the back had to stand up so I could see them. I was introduced to all, greetings were exchanged. A Few snickered, seeing a little fellow with a stick instead of the powdered and bewigged conductor to which they were accustomed. We began.

Considering that it was a first run-through, it went well and strong, and it pleased them even in the rehearsal. After every movement the audience applauded and so did the orchestra (by tapping their bows against their instruments and stamping their feet). After the last movement they made a great to-do. I had to repeat the finale because it went badly, and again they broke out in approval. The Society's directors came to me. I had to go down to the audience and bow my thanks right and left. . . . I must have shaken two hundred hands—it was one of my happiest moments. All those strangers became acquaintances and friends within a half hour. The success of the concert last night was greater than I could have dreamed J. Cramer [Johann Baptist Cramer, the pianist Beethoven admired above all others, who had become a publisher an impresario in London] led me to the piano as if I were a young girl and I was received with loud and long applause. They wanted the adagio da capo [that is, the slow movement played again]; I preferred to indicate my thanks and go on, forf fear of boring the audience. But after the scherzo the demand for repetition was so insistent that I had to play it again. At the end they applauded as long as I kept thanking the orchestra, and I kept shaking hands till I left the hall.

Despite that enthusiastic response to the scherzo, Mendelssohn did not make it a permanent replacement for the minuet, and we hear the symphony now in its original form as published. The work remains, however, the least performed of this composer's mature symphonies, and the last of them to be taken up by most orchestras. It is always a happy discovery, admired as much for its originality as for its craftsmanship. Beethoven, Weber or Mozart may be brought to mind by a turn of musical phrase here or a spot of coloring there, but this is hardly a "derivative" work. The harmonies, modulations and the shapes of the themes themselves were part of the general musical vocabulary at the time. This was Mendelssohn's native language, and what it tells us in this work is more in the nature of looking forward directly to his own full maturity than of looking backward toward any influence from the past, however esteemed.