Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–1847) Symphony No. 3 in A minor Op. 56 MWV N 18 “Scottish”
Urtext based on the Leipzig Mendelssohn Complete Edition edited by Thomas Schmidt-Beste [orch] Duration: 40'
22.214.171.124. – 126.96.36.199. – timp – str
The Urtext editions cast a new light on the often played “Scottish” Symphony which, incidentally, Mendelssohn never called as such.
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The first performance of the “Scottish” Symphony took place under the direction of the composer on 3 March 1842 at the 19th subscription concert of the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. A few months later (on 13 June 1842), Mendelssohn conducted the work’s enthusiastically acclaimed London first performance with the Philharmonic Society. It was also around this time that Mendelssohn began forming the plan to dedicate the publication of the symphony – he had, after all, obtained the first impulses for its composition in the British Isles – to the young Queen Victoria. The symphony was published on 10 December 1842 in a version for piano duet written by the composer himself. It was released simultaneously by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig, Ewer & Co. in London and by Benacci & Peschier. In March of the following year, Breitkopf & Härtel issued the score and parts. Mendelssohn again made considerable revisions for this print, which is the one that has since been used as the final version supervised and authorized by the composer.
Once again, musicological source studies preparing the publication of the volume in the Leipziger Mendelssohn-Ausgabe have provided a major surprise: the “London” version of June 1842 has survived in a copy of the score. Only with this score can the composer’s (first) revision after the first performance in Leipzig be interpreted lucidly. A new light is thus cast on the often played “Scottish” Symphony which, incidentally, Mendelssohn never called as such.
„Die vorbildliche Urtext-Neuausgabe, die in der Partiturbibliothek bei Breitkopf & Härtel erschienen ist, basiert unter anderem auf der autographen Partitur, die in der Biblioteka Jagiellónska in Kraków aufbewahrt wird.“ (Die Tonkunst)
|1. Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato||(14'40)|
|2. Vivace non troppo||(4'10)|
|4. Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai||(9')|
“In the deep twilight, we went to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; within it is a little room with a winding staircase leading up to it. This is where they went up and found Rizzio, dragged him out of the little room and killed him in a dark corner three chambers away. The adjoining chapel is now roofless, and it is thick with grass and ivy. Before the ruined altar, Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything around is broken and rotting, and the bright sky shines in. I think that I found the beginning of my Scottish Symphony there today.“ These words written in Edinburgh by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy in a letter of 30 July 1829 to his family in Berlin are more than simply the first recorded statement of the nascent inspiration for a symphony that was to be completed only twelve and a half years later, in January 1842, as Symphony No. 3 in A minor. The profoundly romantic description of the historical ambience evoked by the ruins of Holyrood Castle has been the prime constant in the reception of the ”Scottish“ Symphony as well as the main starting-point for its interpretation ever since its publication in Sebastian Hensel’s biography Die Familie Mendelssohn. This access to the work appears additionally corroborated by the fact that on that same day, Mendelssohn also laid down in writing the “beginning of [his] Scottish symphony” in the form of a sixteen-measure sketch in short score. It is not surprising that Mendelssohn was open to inspiration for a musical composition by the historically and regionally distinctive “Scottish” atmosphere: as the native land of the legendary bard Ossian, whose epics – fictitiously written by James Macpherson – were all the rage throughout Europe around 1800, Scotland was the epitome of an exotic, mysterious romanticism “steeped in mist”. Mendelssohn had expressed the specific wish to write a “Scottish” piece several times before his journey, “since I greatly love the sea from the mainland and even want to use it in a symphony with Scottish bagpipes”. As we know, the “Scottish” atmosphere also led to the composition of an Ouvertüre zur einsamen Insel (Overture to the Lonely Island), which later became the “Hebrides Overture” and was originally even given the Ossianic title The Isles of Fingal.
Unlike the “Hebrides Overture”, which was premiered in London on 14 May 1832, Mendelssohn did not manage to lastingly capture the impressions he had gained in Scotland, and he ended his stay in England in November 1829 without ever again mentioning work on the composition. Later, he repeatedly expressed the wish to “write [his] A-minor Symphony”; however, there is no evidence showing that he had seriously begun working on the piece during those years, particularly since his work on the “Italian” Symphony in A major kept him increasingly busy on his long Italian journey (1830–32): “The loveliest season of the year in Italy is from 15 April to 15 May. Who can blame me if I find it impossible to put myself back into my misty, Scottish mood? I have therefore had to lay aside the Scottish symphony for the present […].” The provisional plan of finishing the “Scottish” as well as the “Italian” Symphony for the trip to England in 1833, was also not put into action. Incidentally, only rarely did he speak, even in these letters, about the planned A-minor symphony as the “Scottish” symphony, and when he actually did use this adjective, then generally as a means of distinguishing it from the “Italian”. This was no longer necessary after 1834, when he definitively stopped working on the “Italian”.
Not until 1841 do we hear again about the Symphony in A minor. On 6 September, Mendelssohn wrote to Carl Klingemann: “[…] I have begun a large symphony and am already in the third movement.” He dated the completion of the score on 20 January 1842, and the first performance took place under his direction on 3 March 1842 at the 19th subscription concert of the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. The work was awaited with great anticipation by the press and public – after all, it was the first “major” symphony by the man who, at that time, was without question the most important composer in Germany. The reception was tremendously enthusiastic. The Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung reported: “It is to the presence of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy that we now owe two new artistic phenomena of the highest order. The performance of Antigone unfolded first upon our stage […]; later in this concert, the performance of his new symphony in A minor. […] In consideration of the consummate perfection that Mendelssohn has now reached in his works in general, and which undeniably impresses the stamp of mastery upon all of them, it was only natural that the symphony which he now presented to us himself as his first, so to speak, should give rise to the greatest demands and expectations. These expectations have not only been met, but have also surpassed what one had hardly dared hope for, even considering that it was preceded by such works as his overtures and the symphony-cantata. […] In their execution, the layout and form of the symphony resemble the types already established in this compositional genre, but with the essential difference that each movement, as in the symphony-cantata, is not an independent, self-contained musical piece, but is connected to the next directly so that they all constitute one big movement, one musical painting, neither interrupted nor divided by anything.” Due to the great success of the work, a second performance was immediately scheduled for the 20th subscription concert, which took place on 17 March. Since Mendelssohn had already returned to his work place in Berlin by then, the symphony was conducted by Karl Bach, the music director of the municipal theater.
Even before this second performance, and while still under the impact made by the premiere, the composer had decided to revise several passages of the work quite radically. On 13 March he dispatched to Leipzig the autograph score that he had apparently taken to Berlin with him. The accompanying letter of 12 March to Ferdinand David sheds some revealing insights on the revision process: “I would greatly appreciate it if Henschke could make the alterations in the parts and have them finished by the next performance. It looks like a great deal on the page, but only the two changes in the first movement are substantial. […] The entrance of the last A major 6/8 is no doubt a hundred times better orchestrated now. Sometimes it seems that one can be so blind. If the melody still does not stand out clearly enough, then the horns in D must play a little more sotto voce. And if that still does not help, then I hereby solemnly authorize you to omit the three timpani rolls in the first eight measures; but only as a last resort! I hope it will not need this, and that it sounds appropriately strong and clear now, like a male chorus (that is how I would like it and which is why I am willing to part with the timpani at the end, as much as it would sadden me.).”
A few months later (on 13 June 1842), Mendelssohn conducted the work’s enthusiastically acclaimed London first performance with the Philharmonic Society. It was also around this time that Mendelssohn began forming the plan to dedicate the publication of the symphony – he had, after all, obtained the first impulses for its composition in the British Isles – to the young Queen Victoria, who, moreover, had received him twice at Buckingham Palace, on 20 June and 9 July: “I must add that I asked permission to dedicate my A minor symphony to the Queen, since that had actually been the reason for my visit to England, and because the English name would be doubly suited to the Scottish piece.”
The symphony was published on 10 December 1842 in a version for piano duet written by the composer himself. It was released simultaneously by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig, Ewer & Co. in London and by Benacci & Peschier. In March of the following year, Breitkopf & Härtel issued the score and parts. Mendelssohn again made considerable revisions for this print, which is the one that has since been used as the final version supervised and authorized by the composer. Next to many minor changes, three passages were totally rewritten in the fall of 1842: in the “storm” coda towards the end of the first movement, 51 old measures were replaced by 41 new ones, after which five measures of the conclusion were also cut; in the fourth movement, two contrapuntal- fugato sections of the strings were almost completely cut and replaced by short transitional passages. Altogether 111 old measures were replaced by 73 new ones: the first movement is 15 measures shorter, and the fourth 22. Since the composer did not write a new score for these revisions (as he did for the “Italian” Symphony), the autograph is full of cuts and emendations. Sometimes entire pages were removed and replaced. These detached sheets are generally lost today. Fortunately, the earlier version has been preserved in its entirety in the copy of the score made for the first London performance by the scribe and assistant librarian of the Philharmonic Society, William Goodwin.
The consistently positive to enthusiastic reviews of the print underscore above all the significance of the work as the first “major” orchestral symphony by one of the most eminent living composers. One aspect emphasized by all reviewers was, moreover, the composer’s instruction to play all four movements without a break, and, as a result of this, the stronger and more intimate linking of the movements into a cycle. The most famous reception document is Robert Schumann’s review in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. This review is famous – or rather, notorious – for the fact that Schumann confused the “Scottish” with the “Italian” symphony here: “From a third party, we know that the origins of the new symphony go back to an earlier period, when Mendelssohn was sojourning in Rome; the actual completion, however, took place only recently. This is most interesting to know for the evaluation of the work. Just as when we suddenly pull out a yellowed sheet of paper from an old book we mislaid and which reminds us of a time long past that now manifests itself again in all its brightness, to the point that we completely forget the present, so, perhaps, the master, upon finding those old melodies sung in lovely Italy again, might have felt his fantasy inclined to play around these beautiful memories so that, consciously or not, it gave rise to this delicate musical portrait which – similarly to the description of the Italian journey in J. Paul’s Titan – can make us perhaps briefly forget the sadness of not having seen that blessed land.” Schumann apparently made a connection between his approximate knowledge of the “Italian” symphony, which had not been further pursued since the mid 1830s, and the now completed work in A minor. Mendelssohn himself does not seem to have mentioned to his friend the symphony’s association with Scotland, which was now somewhat distant for him as well. After a general elucidation of the work’s character, Schumann came to speak about its cyclical aspects: “In its fundamental structure, Mendelssohn’s symphony also stands out for the inner cohesion of all four movements; even the melodic lines of the principal themes in the four movements are related; one can see this after no more than a first quick comparison. More than any other symphony it forms a closely interwoven whole; character, key and rhythm diverge only slightly from one another in the various movements.”
In closing, let us note that neither the composer nor any of the commentators ever applied the term “Scottish” to the symphony during the entire reception history of the work in the composer’s lifetime. As the composer mentioned in his dedication to Queen Victoria, he had obtained the “first idea” for the composition during his travels in Scotland. He had left this association behind him, however, and it was apparently not so conspicuous that it struck his contemporaries on its own. It was not until the publication of the Sketch of the Life and Works of the Late Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy by Jules Benedict (London, 1850) and, in Germany, of the edition of the travel letters of 1863 as well as Sebastian Hensel’s Die Familie Mendelssohn of 1879 that this reception topos – which had never been authorized by the composer – became anchored in public awareness.
An edition such as the present one is unimaginable without the cooperation of many institutions and persons. The editor wishes to extend his thanks first to all the libraries, as well as their staffs, which allowed us a comprehensive examination of the sources in their possession, above all the Biblioteka Jagiellońska, Kraków, which preserves the autograph score. The following institutions have also made decisive contributions to the realization of this volume: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz; The British Library, London; The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Bodleian Library, University of Oxford; Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge; Veste Coburg, Kunstsammlungen; Hessische Landes- und Hochschulbibliothek, Darmstadt; Heinrich- Heine-Institut, Düsseldorf; University Library, Leeds; Stadtgeschichtliches Museum, Leipzig; New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; Stiftelsen Musikkulturens främjande, Stockholm. Particular thanks go out to the staff members of the Mendelssohn-Forschungsstelle of the Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig for their tireless and selfless support: Dr. Ralf Wehner, Dr. Christoph Hellmundt, Dr. Salome Reiser and Dr. Armin Koch.
Bangor (Wales), December 2005
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