Print this page

Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Overture, The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave), Op. 26
Felix Mendelssohn
(b. Hamburg, 1809; d. Leipzig, 1847)

Composed in 1829; revised in 1833.
Premiered on May 14, 1832 in London, conducted by Thomas Attwood.
Instrumentation: woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 10 minutes.

Felix Mendelssohn was in England in the summer of 1829 for the first of the nine visits he made to that country during his brief life, and was receiving great acclaim as composer, conductor and pianist. He had just turned twenty. Between engagements, Mendelssohn, an avid traveller, undertook a walking tour of Scotland with a friend, the poet Carl Klingemann. Mendelssohn, who once wrote that "it is in pictures, ruins and natural surroundings that I find the most music," was fruitfully inspired by his trip — Mary Queen of Scots' Holyrood Castle gave rise to the "Scottish" Symphony (No. 3) and the wild Hebrides Islands off the rugged west coast of the country sparked the atmospheric Hebrides Overture.

The most famous spot in the Hebrides is the awesome, sea-level Fingal's Cave, named for a legendary Scottish hero, on the tiny island of Staffa. Klingemann described the site: "A greener roar of waves surely never rushed into a stranger cavern — its many pillars made it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, and absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide grey sea within and without." Mendelssohn was rowed to the mouth of the cave in a small skiff, and sat spellbound before the natural wonder. As soon as he got back to land, still inspired by the experience, he rushed to his inn and wrote down the opening theme for a new piece. He included a copy of the melody in a letter to his sister, Fanny, in Berlin so that she would know, as he told her, "how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me."

The Hebrides Overture does not tell a story. Rather it sets a scene and describes a mood that Charles O'Connell noted "evokes the mysterious spirit that seems to pervade the place, the feeling of restlessness and contrary motion, a strange and wild and beautiful atmosphere." Despite the enthusiasm that accompanied the conception of the Hebrides Overture, it took Mendelssohn almost three years to finish the piece to his liking. He completed the first version of the score in Rome at the end of 1830, but he was dissatisfied with it when it was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra on May 14, 1832. He complained particularly about the middle section, which he felt "smells more of counterpoint than of train-oil, seagulls and salt fish, and must be altered." He revised the work during the following year, and published it in its finished version late in 1833.

The Hebrides was one of the first of a new genre of composition that arose early in the 19th century — the "concert overture" that was not associated with a stage production, but intended specifically for the concert hall. The work opens with the famous theme inspired from Mendelssohn as he bobbed about in the small dinghy at the mouth of Fingal's Cave. Not really a complete melody at all, it is simply a one-measure motive that recurs over colorful, changing harmonies. The broad complementary theme, "the greatest melody Mendelssohn ever wrote," according to Sir Donald Tovey, is presented in the rich hues of bassoons and cellos. A martial closing theme ends the exposition. The development section, built largely upon the main theme, rises to a ringing climax before a brilliant flash of lightning from the flutes ushers in the recapitulation. The second theme provides a brief emotional respite before the agitated mood of the opening returns in the extended coda. The storminess subsides, and the Overture concludes with a soft, eerie whisper from the flute.

Violin Concerto in E Minor, Opus 64
Felix Mendelssohn

Composed in 1844.
Premiered on March 13, 1845 in Leipzig, conducted by Niels Gade with Ferdinand David as soloist.
Instrumentation: woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 25 minutes.

"I would like to compose a violin concerto for next winter," Mendelssohn wrote in July 1838 to his friend, the violinist Ferdinand David. "One in E minor keeps running through my head, and the opening gives me no peace." It was for David that Mendelssohn planned and wrote his only mature Violin Concerto. Their friendship began when the two first met at about the age of fifteen while the young violinist was on a concert tour through Germany and they discovered that they had been born only eleven months apart in the same Hamburg neighborhood. Already well formed even in those early years, David's playing was said to have combined the serious, classical restraint of Ludwig Spohr, his teacher, the elegance of the French tradition and the technical brilliance of Paganini. Mendelssohn, who admired both the man and his playing, appointed David concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra when he became that organization's music director in 1835. They remained close friends and musical allies. When Mendelssohn's health was feeble, David looked after much of the routine activity of the Gewandhaus, where he spent 37 years, and he even stepped in to conduct the premiere of Mendelssohn's oratorio St. Paul when the composer was stricken during a measles epidemic in 1836. Two years later Mendelssohn expressed his appreciation to David: "I realize that there are not really many musicians who pursue such a straight road in art undeviatingly as you do, or in whose active course I could feel the same intense delight that I do in yours."

Despite his good intentions and the gentle prodding of David to complete his Violin Concerto, Mendelssohn did not get around to serious work on the score until 1844, after he had fulfilled numerous other composition and conducting commitments, including a particularly troublesome one as director of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. The requirements of that position — which included composing the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream — occupied much of his time, and it was not until he resigned from the post in 1844 that he was able to complete the Violin Concerto. He worked closely with David while composing the piece, inviting his suggestions about both the technique of the soloist's part and the suitability of the music as a vehicle for the violin, not least their shared concern that the violin part "could be executed with the greatest delicacy." He deferred to David in most of the technical questions, and it seems that David himself was responsible for the work's single, finely crafted cadenza.

Both men had a contempt for the empty showpiece concerto of the early Romantic era that contained little more than what Mendelssohn called "juggler's tricks and rope dancer's feats." It was therefore probably inevitable that this Concerto should emerge as a serious musical creation. David thought that it would be an excellent companion to Beethoven's Concerto; the eminent English musicologist Sir Donald Tovey wrote, "I rather envy the enjoyment of anyone who should hear the Mendelssohn Concerto for the first time and find that, like Hamlet, it was full of quotations"; Jascha Heifetz (who recorded the Concerto on a Guarnerius violin that David owned) was once prompted by the work's undiminished popularity to say that "it is always retired at the end of one season, and revived at the beginning of the next." Louis Biancolli summarized the character of this work of Mendelssohn's maturity, completed only two years before his death at the age of 38: "In classical poise, melodic suavity, and refined romantic feeling, it is an epitome of his style.... Finesse, cultivated taste, and an unerring sense of the appropriate were among his chief attributes."

The Concerto opens with a soaring violin melody whose lyricism exhibits a grand passion tinged with restless, Romantic melancholy. Some glistening passagework for the violinist leads through a transition melody to the second theme, a quiet, sunny strain shared by woodwinds and soloist. More glistening arabesques from the violinist and a quickened rhythm close the exposition. The succinct development section is largely based on the opening theme. In this Concerto, Mendelssohn moved the cadenza forward from its traditional place as an appendage near the end of the first movement to become an integral component of the structure, here separating the development from the recapitulation. It leads seamlessly into the restatement of the movement's thematic material and the exhilarating closing pages.

The thread of a single note sustained by the bassoon carries the Concerto to the Andante, a song rich in warm sentiment and endearing elegance. This slow movement's center section is distinguished by its rustling accompaniment and bittersweet minor-mode melody. A dozen measures of chordal writing for strings link the Andante to the finale, an effervescent sonata form that trips along with the distinctive aerial grace of which Mendelssohn was the undisputed master.

In 1906, one of the 19th-century's greatest violinists and an ardent exponent of Mendelssohn's Concerto, Joseph Joachim, told the guests at a party in his honor, "The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, the one that makes the fewest concessions, is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms comes closest to Beethoven's in its seriousness. Max Bruch wrote the richest and most enchanting of the four. But the dearest of them all, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's."

Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Opus 56, "Scottish"
Felix Mendelssohn

Composed in 1841-1842.
Premiered on March 3, 1842 in Leipzig, conducted by the composer.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 38 minutes.

At age twenty, Felix Mendelssohn was a wonder. He was one of Europe's best composers, an excellent pianist, a path-breaking conductor and a visual artist of nearly professional capability, as well as a man of immense charm and personality. It is not surprising that his first appearances in London in the spring and summer of 1829 were a smashing success. He even seemed blessed by a slight speech impediment that allowed him to negotiate the "th" sound of English that plagued most German visitors. Both to relax from his hectic London schedule and to temporarily sate his obsession with travel, he reserved time in late summer, following his appearances, to tour the British countryside. He and his traveling companion, Karl Klingemann, the secretary of the Hanover Legation in London, settled on a walking tour through the Scottish Highlands; they arrived in Edinburgh on July 28th.

In a letter recounting the experiences of his first day in the Scottish capital, Mendelssohn wrote, "Everything here looks so stern and robust, half enveloped in a haze of smoke or fog. Many Highlanders came in costume from church victoriously leading their sweethearts in their Sunday attire and casting magnificent and important looks over the world; with long, red beards, tartan plaids, bonnets and feathers and naked knees and their bagpipes in their hands, they passed along by the half-ruined gray castle on the meadow where Mary Stuart lived in splendor." Two days later, he reported on his visit to Mary's castle, Holyrood: "In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Mary lived and loved. A little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door. This is the staircase the murderers ascended, and, finding Rizzio [Mary's Italian advisor and, probably, lover, whom the Scots mistrusted] ... drew him out; about three chambers away is a small corner where they killed him. The chapel close to it is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at the broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of England. Everything around is broken and moldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I have found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish symphony." Then follow ten measures of music that were to become the introductory melody of the Third Symphony. Mendelssohn's Scottish adventure continued for most of August. He and Klingemann traveled on foot, stopping at whatever vista caught their fancy so that Felix could make a quick pencil sketch of the scene. Mendelssohn was most impressed by one particularly stormy prospect on the gnarled Isle of Staffa off the western coast of Scotland, an experience that gave rise to the superb Hebrides Overture. The travelers completed their strenuous journey and returned to London.

Mendelssohn occupied himself immediately with the Hebrides Overture and completed it the following year. The Symphony, however, did not come so easily. Some preliminary sketches for it were done in 1830-1831 while Mendelssohn was touring Italy, but he admitted that he found it impossible to evoke the "misty mood" of Scotland while in sun-splashed Rome, and put the work aside; it was not finished until January 1842 in Berlin. He conducted the premiere on March 3rd with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and included the new Symphony in his London concerts for that summer. Its success only added to the great acclaim already accorded Mendelssohn by the English, a phenomenon that was royally recognized when Queen Victoria granted the composer permission to dedicate the work to her.

Though Mendelssohn always referred to this work as his "Scottish" Symphony, the score was originally published as simply "Symphony No. 3," without any subtitle. (This was the last symphony he composed, but it was published third, before the No. 4, "Italian" and the No. 5, "Reformation.") Many commentators have found all manner of Scottish songs, ceremonies and sights embodied in the music. Mendelssohn, for his part, refused to apply any specific program to the work, and he even wrote censoriously of the indigenous music he heard in Scotland. "No national music for me!" he proclaimed. "Infamous, vulgar, out-of-tune trash.... It is distracting and has given me a toothache already. Scottish bagpipes, Swiss cow-horns, Welsh harps, all playing the Huntsmen's Chorus with hideously improvised variations — then their 'beautiful' singing in the hall — altogether their music is beyond conception." It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there is little folk-like melody in this work. Mendelssohn later clarified his true inspiration for the "Scottish" Symphony: "It is in pictures, ruins and natural surroundings that I find the most music." Rather than a tonal travelogue, this is a work of deep sensibility and manly melancholy that grew from the emotions that the stern Scottish landscape and history engendered in the young Mendelssohn; it is music "more of feeling than of painting," as Beethoven said of his own "Pastoral" Symphony.

The four movements of the "Scottish" Symphony, Mendelssohn's greatest work in the genre, are directed to be played without pause. The long, brooding introduction opens with a grave harmonization of the melody that Mendelssohn conceived at Holyrood. The sonata form proper begins with a flowing theme, graceful yet filled with vigor. Other melodic inspirations follow. A stormy, thoroughly worked-out development utilizes most of the exposition's thematic material. After the recapitulation, a coda with the force of a second development section is concluded by a return of the brooding theme of the introduction. The second movement is the only one that consistently shows sunlight and high spirits. It is built around two melodies: one, skipping and animated, is introduced by the clarinet; the other, brisk and martial, is presented in the strings.

The wonderful third movement is unsurpassed in Mendelssohn's orchestral oeuvre. In melody, structure, orchestration and mood it belongs among the masterworks of the Romantic era. Cast in sonata form, its first theme is a lyrical melody of noble gait that is perfectly balanced by the elegiac second theme, characterized by its heroic, dotted rhythms. The finale is a vivacious and well-developed dance in an atmospheric minor key. The Symphony concludes with a majestic coda in a broad, swinging meter.

Back to Top

©2015 Dr. Richard E. Rodda