Felix Mendelssohn was one of music’s most precocious prodigies, creating mature compositions while just a teenager. Still, at age 20, he did what most young men from wealthy families did at the time: He embarked on a “grand tour.” With extended visits to the British Isles and Italy, Mendelssohn expanded his worldview and brought home inspiration for future projects. Scotland would be memorialized in the Scottish Symphony and the Hebrides Overture, while Italy sparked an Italian Symphony. True to their origins, Mendelssohn’s Scottish works are misty and stormy, while the southern climate of Italy produced, in Mendelssohn’s words, “the jolliest piece I have ever done.”
Mendelssohn sketched part of the Italian Symphony while in Italy in 1830–31, and completed the work in 1833. He used the piece to fulfill a prestigious commission from the Philharmonic Society of London, the same group that had commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The Italian Symphony (the nickname came from the composer) debuted in London in May of 1834. Besides the clear, sunny nature of the work, especially in its ebullient first movement, Mendelssohn confirmed the Italian origins with specific folk references. He dubbed the finale a saltarello — a leaping Italian folk dance — and he also incorporated elements of a tarantella, a devilishly fast dance from southern Italy to be undertaken (so the story goes) after a bite from a tarantula, until the dancer is cured or dies.
Later in 1834, Mendelssohn made substantial revisions to the symphony’s final three movements. He intended to revise the first movement, too, but postponed that task. Eventually, he judged that too much time had passed for him to rework the first movement in a style consistent with the rest of the piece, so he suppressed the symphony altogether. The work was published posthumously as the Symphony No. 4, although it actually came after the First and Fifth symphonies and was followed by the Second and Third. To further complicate the matter, the publisher worked from the original London score instead of Mendelssohn’s revised version, which itself existed in various iterations. A scholarly edition based on Mendelssohn’s revisions finally came out in 1999, but it is quite a different work than the one the public knows. Clearly, Mendelssohn’s final intentions have been misrepresented over the years, but millions of fans who love the original Italian Symphony likely would not want a single note changed. This raises an age-old question: Is the composer the ultimate arbiter of his own music? In the case of a genius such as Mendelssohn, we can probably agree that any version of his work is a treasure to have in our repertoire.
Aaron Grad ©2009