Symphony Study No 57 | Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 “Scotch”

by Glenn on January 7, 2017

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809–1847)
Symphony No. 3 in a minor, Op. 56, Scotch

Andante con moto and Allegro un poco agitato—Vivace non troppo—Adagio—Allegro vivacissimo and Allegro maestoso assai

first performance: 3 March 1842 | Leipzig Gewandhaus
Dedicated to “H.M. Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland.”

I listened to a concert performance by the Berlin Philharmonic in their Digital Concert Hall from 22 November 2014, conducted by Alan Gilbert.

Alan Gilbert Conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, “Scotch.” Photo credit: Screen capture from the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall.

While this symphony is numbered as Mendelssohn’s Third, it was actually composed last (No. 5 in order of composition).

Whenever I listen to a work by Mendelssohn that is unfamiliar to me, my ear gets confused. It’s as though I’m hearing Mozart composing in the wrong epoch; or Beethoven composing posthumously. Mendelssohn has the clean lines and counterpoint of the classical era with the emotion (but not to excess) of the romantic era.

Though Mendelssohn “always referred to” this symphony as “his ‘Scotch Symphony,’” that title is not used in the score.

In 1829 Mendelssohn visited Scotland where “he wrote down sixteen bars of music, the opening, still in preliminary form, of this score.” It wasn’t until 1841 that he returned to this music and developed this symphony.

Unusual, this symphony comes with a note from Mendelssohn asking that there not be breaks between the movements. The Berlin Philharmonic observed this practice.

The first and third movements are rather mellow. Michael Steinberg says, “The Scotch is very much of a pianissimo symphony.” While the opening movement has a number of moods and tempos, the third movement is focused around one tune.

The second movement is the most charming. It begins with a great tune for clarinet, which is picked up by the flutes and oboes. The woodwinds shine at first and then the strings get their moment. This is very fine chamber music. And because it’s the Berlin Philharmonic, it’s played flawlessly. This movement has some flavor of the Scots.

There’s a great moment in the final movement. Things have been going along boisterously. Then the strings just stop on a held chord and the clarinet takes a solo. It’s a lovely moment.

Principal Clarinetist Wenzel Fuchs of the Berlin Philharmonic plays a solo in the fourth movement of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, “Scotch.” Photo credit: Screen capture from the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall.

The conclusion of the symphony is superb:  a great and joyful tune played by the whole orchestra which carries us to the end.

Alan Gilbert conducts the conclusion of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, “Scotch,” with the Berlin Philharmonic. Photo credit: Screen capture from the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall.

It’s hard to know what effect composers intend for their listeners. One assumes they want their music to be heard, with possible exceptions, for example Charles Ives with his Fourth Symphony, where it wasn’t performed in his lifetime. But assuming Mendelssohn would be delighted to know that people are listening to his music, what outcome would he hope for?

With Mendelssohn, the dominant effect for me is light power. He is a bantam weight fighter.

One comment

[…] approach to music-making. I find myself partial to hummable tunes. Coming on the heels of my listening to Mendelssohn’s Scotch Symphony (No. 3), this symphony seems more about ideas of music than actual music. Without knowing what effect […]

by Symphony Study No. 58 | Hartmann Symphony No. 8 « on 11 January 2017 at 12:30 pm. #