Friday, December 09, 2005

 

Mendelssohn: the Italian Symphony

The third of Mendelssohn's Symphonies (in order of their composition---but published as No. IV), in A major, Op.90, was written during his long journey through Italy, and finished in 1833. This affords the best explanation of the title---except the Finale, which is a distinctive Italian dance, the Saltarello, and is so named. The score embraces the instruments of the ordinary full orchestra: two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horn, trumpets and drums; and the quintet of strings. There is no independent Introduction; the first Movement (in regular sonata-allegro form) begins at once with a joyous burst of melody, and an invigorating rhythmic pulse, and this bright, sunny atmosphere envelops the whole Movement. The second Codetta has new thematic material; while the first one is derived directly from the principal Theme, with enlargement of the first figure. The persistent similarity of melodic and rhythmic formation throughout the first Movement is wisely modified, with fine instructural instinct, by the insertion and extended manipulation of a new thematic phrase, in the Development, and again in the Coda. A similar thematic addition occurs in the Finale of this Symphony. This somewhat irregular, though justifiable and not uncommon practice, may be found in Beethoven's Third Symphony, first movement.---The most consistent scheme for a Development is a series of Sections. A "Section" is an indeterminate passage of optional length and optional contents---thus providing the necessary freedom of Development. The Sections are expected to make use of the thematic factors of the Exposition, and this they very naturally and usually do; but since a Section is totally optional in contents, it has a right to present entirely new material, and not infrequently does so---in some rare instances to an almost exclusive extent: see the last Movement of Beethoven's first piano Sonata, Op.2, No.1

The slow Movement is a sort of Chant, and its stately rhythmic tread suggests a Procession. Mendelssohn is said to have had here an old Bohemian folk-song in mind. It is beautifully conceived, and is executed with the utmost technical refinement. The design is sonatine-allegro (that is there is no Development). Considerable importance attaches to the brief Prelude, which, though obviously introductory in purpose, is drawn upon for the Codetta to the principal Theme, and recurs as Interlude before the Recapitulation. In the latter, the principal Theme is transposed, and otherwise modified.

For the third Movement no other title is indicated than the tempo-mark; it would have been consistent to call it a Menuetto, for its elegance and grace of line, its winning melody, and its suave, serenely lovely mood, conjure up the vision of this country dance. Its design is the usual Song-form with Trio. The opening of the Trio, in horns and bassoons---an incipient fanfare with cunningly rounded edges, is one of the most original and delightful conceits to be found anywhere in Mendelssohn's music. And its reverberation in the Coda is a master-touch.

The Finale is a whirling, vertiginous Salterello. The principal Theme is preceded by six measures of related introductory matter. Of the three Codettas, only the second is of new thematic material; the first one closely resembles the principal Theme, and the third one is brief. In two respects this Finale is noteworthy: the first is the choice of the minor mode. It is not at all unusual to end a minor composition in the major mode (see the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies of Beethoven, the First of Brahms, the Scotch Symphony of Mendelssohn---and very many others); but contrary to all tradition and usage, and with an apparent reversal of the finer and truer psychological consequences---Mendelssohn rounds out this singularly joyous (major) Symphony, in the somber minor mode. Incidentally, he does the same thing, with almost weird effect, in one of his earliest piano pieces (Op.7,No.7). The other exceptional feature of the Finale is its unusual structural design: it is ostensibly a sonata-allegro form, states a perfectly regular Exposition, and a long legitimate Development (in which, as in the first Movement, a new motive is inserted), but there is no Recapitulation; true to nature, the progressive whirl of the turbulent dance gradually, and naturally, undermines the later structural parts, so that finally the expected Recapitulation is engulfed---nothing remains but a Coda, which is more normal, less orgiastic than might be awaited.

Cheers,

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