Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–1847) Symphony No. 4 in A major MWV N 16 [Op. 90] (Italian)
Urtext based on the Leipzig Mendelssohn Complete Edition edited by Thomas Schmidt-Beste [orch] duration: 28'
126.96.36.199. – 188.8.131.52. – timp – str
"To all extents and purposes, Germany is the land of artists," wrote Mendelssohn in 1831 while on his travels in Italy; but Italy, he added, "is the land of art." Everywhere he went in Italy, the 22-year-old composer found impulses for his symphony.
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"To all extents and purposes, Germany is the land of artists," wrote Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy in 1831 while on his travels in Italy; but Italy, he added, "is the land of art." Indeed, everywhere he went in Italy, the 22-year-old composer found impulses for his symphony ("I have to save the work until I have seen Naples"). But although the country fired his inspiration ("It will be the merriest piece that I have ever written"), he did not actually write the "Italian" Symphony there. This did not occur until early 1833, when Mendelssohn obtained a commission from London, where he then conducted the first performance in May 1833. Begun the following year, his revision of the piece remained fragmentary, and the composer no longer performed the work himself. The familiar "London version" thus represents the only closed form of the work which the composer presented to the public. This is the version of the "Italian" Symphony that is now appearing in the "Breitkopf Urtext" collection as a pre-print from the Complete Edition.
|1. Allegro vivace|
|2. Andante con moto|
|3. Con moto moderato|
|4. Saltarello: Presto|
“And yet, it is the country of art, for it is the country of nature, and it is alive and moving everywhere, in the blue sky, and in the sea and in the trees there is plenty of music. But the country of the artists, after all, is Germany, and three cheers to it!” As during his journey to Scotland in 1829, Mendelssohn’s main artistic aim while in Italy from October 1830 to July 1831 (part of his ‘grand tour’ from 1830 to 1832) was to seek inspiration for writing music from the mixture of culture and nature which he expected to find there. Scotland fascinated the Romantics as it was shrouded in misty mystery and ancient bardic legend; Italy, on the other hand, since Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Goethe, was the home of pure, serene classicism and natural beauty; actual music-making, on the other hand, had reached a bewilderingly low level in the eyes of the composer.
It is thus unsurprising that, right from the beginning, Mendelssohn writes in his letters from Italy about works or plans for works which drew their inspiration from his surroundings – be it very specifically, as in the case of the Catholic church compositions which he wrote while in Rome, or be it in a more general sense, as indeed in the case of the new symphony which is mentioned from late autumn onwards. The explicit ‘Italian’ connection is not made straightaway, however – the first mention of a symphony in Italy reads as follows: “à propos: my favourite work, which I am studying now, is Goethe’s Lili’s Park, and three passages in particular: ‘Kehr ich mich um und brumm’ and ‘eh la menotte etc.’ and especially ‘die ganze Luft ist warm, ist blüthevoll’ where decidedly the clarinets enter – I want to make a Scherzo for a symphony from that.” To be sure, this could refer to an ongoing consideration of the ‘Scottish’ symphony project (the later op. 56 in whose Scherzo the clarinets ‘enter decidedly’ as well and which still exercised the composer around that time) as well as to a planned ‘Italian’ symphony, or even to a completely different symphony. Shortly thereafter, however, the composer jestingly asks in a letter: “à propos, should I write a symphony: les charmes d’Italie?”, and a little later, the symphony is mentioned specifically in the context of the parallel project of the ‘Scottish’ and yet a third, the ‘Revolutionary’ symphony: “the plan of the symphony is still far afield for me, and just now so disturbed on account of the new revolution, that I do not know whether and how I will ever get around to it; for the time being two other symphonies take precedence, one from Scotland, one from Italy, and even before I get around to those I have much else to do.”
From spring 1831 onwards, however, the plans for a symphony in A major take clear precedence, and the composer now makes it clear that it was necessary to seek out a specifically ‘Italian’ inspiration for it. What is less obvious from the letters from that time, alas, is the actual progress the composer made in writing the work – it is indeed unclear how much, if anything, of the ideas for an A major symphony made its way onto paper in early 1831. Thus, we read on 22 February 1831: “Composing is once again going well; the Italian symphony is making great progress, it will be the most cheerful piece I have ever made, especially the last movement; I do not have anything specific yet for the Adagio, I think I must save it for Naples.” But already ten days later, he is sounding far less optimistic: “Now I am wondering whether I have made good use of my time here, and I am running out of it left and right; if only I could get to grips with one of the two symphonies here, I must postpone the Italian until I have seen Naples, but even the other one retreats as rapidly as I want to approach it.” The birthday letter to his mother, written on 15 March 1831, does not mention real progress anymore, much less completion: “I wish that the merry symphony I am writing about Italy were already finished and that you could receive it today. I feel that this will be a piece to your liking, as you do not love fog and melancholy, without which, however, one cannot even think of living in Scotland. But this is still far afield, and thus you have to take my word for it that I will write a very serene symphony which will make you cheerful.” Normally, Mendelssohn’s expression “far afield” is a euphemism for a composition of which not a note has made it onto paper yet; but then again, on 27 April 1831 he sounds as though at least substantial sections of the symphony were completed: “If I keep at it like I do now, I will also finish the Italian symphony in Italy, which would mean that I could bring a pretty decent haul from this winter back with me.”
Nevertheless, we hear nothing more of the symphony project after Mendelssohn left Italy. In any case, no written testimonies – sketches or drafts – are extant which alone could prove that the composer really did work on the A major symphony in Italy. One potential source which keeps appearing in the literature is the Concertino, an allegedly partially autograph short-score manuscript first mentioned by Eric Werner in his Mendelssohn biography of 1963. However, although it is now clear that this manuscript indeed exists, it is a later copy without any autograph elements whatsoever. As with the ‘Scottish’ symphony – for which no written testimonies exist between the very early sketch from Edinburgh (30 July 1829) and the late 1830s at the earliest – Mendelssohn apparently did not manage to commit the inspirations gained in situ to paper, at least for the time being. It was not until he received a commission from the Philharmonic Society in London that he returned to his symphony project. Already on 11 June 1831, he had written from Rome to his London friend Thomas Attwood that he had composed “a new Simphony, an overture, & several vocal pieces” in Italy. While we still cannot be absolutely sure that this “Simphony” Mendelssohn was referring to was in fact the ‘Italian’, Attwood had obviously not forgotten this information when he induced the Philharmonic Society in November of 1832 to commission his friend to write a symphony, an overture and a vocal work. Mendelssohn’s gratitude for this commission – which lifted him from his Berlin depression and included the prospect of a journey to his beloved England – is particularly apparent in his response to Attwood: “This is the most agreeable I could have ever wished for and it has greatly contributed to deliver me from the bad state of health and of mind, in which I passed the greater part of last year. I shall begin the composition of the Symphony in [a] few days, and think to finish it very soon […].” The symphony was slow to get off the ground in the subsequent weeks; still on 4 February 1833, the composer writes in a letter to Carl Klingemann about an “approaching” symphony; but once he got started, things moved very quickly, as so often with Mendelssohn. On 20 February 1833, he announced to Klingemann that the second movement would be finished “tomorrow”, and the finished autograph is dated 13 March 1833. On 14 April, the composer left for London where he arrived on 25 April; on 13 Mai 1833, the symphony was performed in the sixth subscription concert of the Philharmonic Society in the Hanover Square Rooms – under the direction of the composer himself who also appeared as a soloist (with Mozart’s piano concerto in D minor K. 466) in the first part of the programme.
The symphony by Mendelssohn – who was familiar to the London public through two previous England journeys – was received enthusiastically by the audience, although the orchestra, as usual, had rehearsed it just once. The slow movement had to be encored, and the critic of the Harmonicon reported: “M. Mendelssohn’s [symphony], composed in pursuance of a resolution of this Society, by which he was requested to write a symphony, overture, and vocal piece, in liberal terms, is a composition that will endure for ages, if we may presume to judge such a work on a single performance. The first movement, an allegro vivace, in A, without any slow opening, speaks at once the highly excited state of the author’s imagination, and the fine flow of his animal spirits, when he wrote it [...]. We may say the same of the finale, which has this peculiarity – that it is in the minor of the key in which the symphony commences. The slow movement in D minor is not less distinguished by ingenuity of a very rare description, and beauty of the most discernible kind, than by its undisputed, unquestionable originality: this was loudly encored. The scherzo, in A, and the trio, in E, shew genius of a high order in every bar.” The composer seemed satisfied as well: “However, you ought to know [...] that yesterday’s Philharmonic went honourably enough for me; people said it was the best concert that the Society had ever put on.”
More than a year after the premiere, Mendelssohn London friend Ignaz Moscheles arranged for another performance on 2 June 1834; performances in Germany were still out of the question as the rights to the symphony remained with the Philharmonic Society for two years, and as the autograph score had been left in London (with Moscheles for safekeeping). Thus, when Fanny Hensel asked her brother for the theme of the second movement in June of 1834, and when almost at the same time Eduard Franck (a student of Mendelssohn’s in Düsseldorf) requested to see the symphony, Mendelssohn had no choice but to start a completely new score – a score which, as usual, caused substantial revisions. The result of these revisions is a second version of movements two to four of the symphony, finished in the summer of 1834; a revision of the first movement was planned but never realised. The ‘London’ version, on the other hand, was performed again by the Philharmonic, on 15 May 1837, this time under the baton of Cipriani Potter; a last performance followed on 18 June 1838, again conducted by Moscheles himself.
By November of 1844, the autograph score was once again in Mendelssohn’s possession (as is witnessed by its appearance in the inventory of his personal music library); apparently, he had taken it with him during one of his subsequent visits to London. After his death, the Philharmonic had a score made from the parts for a performance on 13 March 1848; and on 1 November 1849, the symphony (in the same ‘London’ version) was first performed in Germany, in the Leipzig Gewandhaus under the directon of Julius Rietz. In 1851, Julius Rietz oversaw the first edition of the score and of a four-hand piano arrangement shortly thereafter; it appeared as ‘opus 90’ and as ‘no. 19 of the posthumous works’ with Breitkopf & Härtel. Finally, in 1852, the publication of the four-hand piano arrangement by Ewer & Co. in London initiated a lengthy review by George Alexander Macfarren. Aside from his almost certainly false claim that the arrangement was by Mendelssohn himself, Macfarren’s essay is remarkable not only as the first detailed analytical study of the work, but also as the first to mention its ‘Italian’ inspiration not just in passing and in reference to the Saltarello, but as a the principal interpretive point of departure. The text begins thus: “This Symphony in A major, the second Symphony of the composer, was written […] after Mendelssohn’s visit to Italy, the impressions of which it embodies, as does the Symphony in A minor, the third Symphony, written some ten years later, embody those of his visit to Scotland […].” And as was the case with the ‘Scottish’ symphony, there was no way back for the A major symphony, with a 19thcentury public yearning for ‘poetical’ interpretations – thus, an inspiration which was never publicly authorised by the composer became on the main tenets of the work’s reception and has remained so.
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 Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz which owns the autograph score, and the director of its Mendelssohn Archive, Roland Schmidt-Hensel. The following institutions have also made substantial contributions to the realization of this volume: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford; The British Library, London; University Library, Leeds; New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; Washington, Library of Congress. 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. Salome Reiser and Birgit Müller. The edition has profited inestimably from their assistance.
Bangor (Wales), January 2009
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