Symphony No 4 in A, Op 90, Italian (1833)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
- Allegro vivace
- Andante con moto
- Con moto moderato
- Saltarello: Presto
The son of a wealthy Hamburg banker, Mendelssohn was a child prodigy who had written thirteen symphonies and three concertos by the time he was 16. He later popularised the work of J.S. Bach and developed the role of the modern conductor as music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.
At the age of 21, Felix was sent by his father out into the world on a grand tour “to examine the various countries closely … and to make my name and gifts known…”. Mendelssohn first went to Britain where he was so admired that his influence was felt there for the remainder of the century. His Scottish Symphony and Hebrides Overture are products of this time. At Goethe’s suggestion, Mendelssohn then went to Italy in 1830 where he sketched (and named) his Italian Symphony. Returning to Germany 18 months later, he struggled with the score, complaining that it had cost him some of the bitterest moments of his life. Certainly there is no reflection of that bitterness in this cheerful and vibrant music. A commission for a symphony from the London Philharmonic Society prompted him to complete the score and Mendelssohn conducted its premiere in London in May of 1833.
Strangely, Mendelssohn did not like this symphony and planned a number of revisions (drafts of which have recently been discovered). As a result, he only conducted it once and the score was not published until after his death. Today the Italian Symphony is regarded as a masterpiece.
Mendelssohn declared that the symphony features all of Italy: its people, its landscapes and its art. He vowed to pay symphonic homage to their vivacity, and he felt that the result was the most cheerful piece of music he had yet composed.
Unusually the symphony starts in A major and ends in A minor (the reverse of the more conventional order in the Scottish Symphony). The sunny and cheerful first movement suggests the Italian traditional dance the tarantella, that was alleged to cure the bite of the tarantula spider!
The slow second movement may have been inspired by a religious procession in Naples or Rome, but more likely it was a tribute to both Goethe, and Mendelssohn’s teacher Zelter, a theme of whose it quotes. Both had died recently. It is also reminiscent of the slow movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony.
Mendelssohn’s lilting version of the classical minuet that comprises the third movement, with its prominent horn calls, recalls his music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The spirited finale was named a Saltarello by Mendelssohn after a lively Italian country dance in triple time, which he observed at the Roman Carnival of 1831. With prominent contributions from the flutes, the movement’s energy ebbs and flows , before a brief but stirring conclusion.
Performed: 1981, 2000, June 2013