Symphony Saturday

Next up: Felix Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn is a composer I’m not terribly familiar with, I’m sorry to say. Like many of the great musical prodigies, he lived quickly and died young, when he was only 38 years old. In those thirty-eight years he produced a large amount of music with a great deal of staying power: orchestral music, choral music, piano works, and sacred music. I remember playing one of his Songs Without Words back during my piano playing days in high school and college, and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is one of my favorite works of classical music, ever. That concerto is seriously amazing, and if you have a chance, seek it out — as one of the most popular of all concertos, there are performances a-plenty to select from on YouTube. That work is full of gorgeous melody and some truly magical moments.

But we’re about Mendelssohn the symphonist today, so here is his Symphony No. 4. It’s the third symphony he wrote, but he was never quite satisfied with it, so it pretty much stayed in a drawer until after his death. (Side note: People who complain about George Lucas futzing with his movies should really read up on the history of classical music sometimes. There are a lot of beloved works that had multiple versions, and works whose “final” versions are only “final” because those are the versions that existed when the composer died.) This symphony is often called “the Italian”, because it was intended by Mendelssohn as something of a musical depiction of the feelings from his trips to Italy. Mendelssohn wrote a lot of music like this, what I call “travelogue” music — music that’s not intended as precisely pictorial in nature, but music that is inspired by specific places, in which he strives to capture what he feels as the character of those places in his own musical language. It’s important when listening to a piece like, say, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, to remember that we’re hearing the impressions of a foreign land as channeled through the brain of a German. This problem arises again and again, throughout a great deal of the history of classical music. The filtering of ethnic or national character through a foreign musical language is a constant.

So, the Italian symphony doesn’t sound particularly “Italian” to me, but as noted, that’s not really Mendelssohn’s goal. It does sound like what it is: a danceful, rhythmic symphony with a great deal of charm. Here is Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony.

Next week, we’ll hear another Mendelssohn work, and then we’re off to the Land of Liszt!

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