Friday, December 09, 2005


Mendelssohn: the Scotch Symphony

The last of Mendelssohn's Symphonies (No. V in the order of composition, but known as the Third), in A minor, op.56, was composed in 1842. The designation "Scotch" which he himself gave to the Symphony, may be explained in the same way as the title of the Italian Symphony is accounted for: it owes its inception to impressions received during a journey---this time through Scotland, as early as 1829. These impressions naturally gave color to the work, but merely in a general way; only the second Movement has the rhythmic lilt of some Scottish dance; and the five-tone scale upon which its chief melodic Theme is built give it a decided Caledonian flavor. Some commentators recognize many other Scottish allusions---among others, the Harp of Ossian in the third Movement, and the sound of echoes over the Scotland's hills and lakes. But such deductions are apt to mislead the listener, and to becloud, rather than confirm, the intrinsic, abstract musical purpose. Certain it is that Mendelssohn executed the actual composition of the Symphony in the radically un-Scotch atmosphere of Berlin, some thirteen years after gathering his Scottish impressions.

It is Mendelssohn's most masterly symphonic creation, and it manifests the finest, most enduring qualities of his genius.

The first Movement opens with a lengthy Introduction (Andante, three-Part Song form), the initial melodic phrase of which is an amplified, and otherwise modified version of the principal Theme of the Allegro. The design is sonata-allegro form, normal and regular in construction. The melodic relation between the introductory phrase and the principal Theme is clearly recognizable. the subordinate Theme is a new melody, counterpointed against the first figure of the principal theme. Such parallelisms between the chief Themes, often amounting to indirect or even direct identity of the subordinate Theme with the Principal one, has been repeatedly alluded to: This similarity of the two chief Themes, instead of the contrast that would be expected, was very common--almost the rule---in Haydn's day, and rested upon the universal, and in that era particularly prevalent, demand for thematic Unity. It is encountered a little less frequently in Mozart, but was recognized as valid by Beethoven, Brahms and others, gaining, rather than losing, its structural authority among present day composers. Conspicuous examples of this ingenious coalescence of the two, where the new Theme is a counterpointed companion to the principal one---at least for a time---are: Haydn, last Movement of the twelfth of the London Symphonies; Beethoven, last Movement of the piano Sonata Op.26; first Movement of his Fifth Symphony; Brahms, First Symphony, slow movement; Glazounov, first Movement of the piano Sonata, E minor, Op.75; d'Indy, first Movement of the String Quartet, E major, Op.45.

Mendelssohn conceived the idea of making this Symphony a unit, by running the Movements together; thus, after and effective recurrence of the first Period of the Introduction, at the end of the Allegro, the word attacca indicates that the following Movement shall begin at once, without interruption. The same direction appears at the close of the second and third Movements. He may have adopted the idea from Schumann, whose D-minor Symphony (in einem Satz), with connected Movements, was first performed in December, 1841, while Mendelssohn was busy with this Scotch Symphony. Only a single instance of such continuity appears in Beethoven's nine Symphonies: in the Fifth, the third Movement leads into the Finale without a break. There is, to be sure, a parallel instance in the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven, the last three Movements of which constitute a continuous unit. But the case here is different: this connection was as inevitable as in the Episodes of the Finale of the Ninth. Such continuity may serve some lofty artistic purpose, but in lengthy compositions its wearisome effect upon the listener is likely to frustrate the good intention.

The title of the second Movement is limited to the tempo-mark, Vivace; in spirit it is a Scherzo, though it has no Trio (its design is sonata-allegro). It is one of those exquisitely delicate, airy, sparkling musical creations which so faithfully reflect the genial, vivacious quality of Mendelssohn's spirit, and are admirably characteristic of a predominating phase of his musical conception.

An introductory passage of eight measures precedes the principal Theme. In the Recapitulation the Theme is greatly reduced---only its first Phrase is presented.

The slow Movement, located here as third, instead of in its usual place of second, is of exceptional beauty. Its principal Theme is a lyric melody of rich, mature, mellow quality, with harp-like accompaniment; alternating with a subordinate Theme of serious character and march-like tread, which provides an effective and impressive contrast. The design is sonatine-allegro form, with an introductory Period of nine measures. A coalition of the two Themes, like that in the first Movement, but of a totally different kind, takes place here in the following manner: the second Part of the subordinate Theme corresponds almost exactly to the second Period of the principal Theme. This unusual structural arrangement lends extra prominence to the lyric element of the Movement.

The Finale is a Movement of tremendous vitality and rhythmic strength; and is as near an approach to genuine dramatic utterance as Mendelssohn's gently, self-restrained disposition was capable of. The motive of the Transition (from principal Theme into the subordinate) is new, as it has the right to be, and assumes special importance in the Development, where (in Section 3) it becomes the theme of a Fugue-exposition.

The design is sonata-allegro, broad but admirably proportioned. The Coda is a masterly culmination of the Movement; its first and second Sections utilize foregoing motives; the third Section, however, is entirely new: it turns to the major mode, alters the meter and tempo, and intonates a hymn of serene, dignified, mildly majestic character, and very genuine beauty. Such a totally new ending is called an Independent Coda.


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