Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony
- January 20, 2018
Like so many of Haydn’s symphonies, this one acquired its nickname, La Passione, after the fact, and in this case, long after its initial composition during the early years of Haydn’s residency as Kapellmeister for Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. An advertisement for a performance of the work during the Holy Week in the German city of Schwerin in 1790 is the earliest reference to this nickname, and it is not difficult to see why the title has stuck. (Publishers were wont to latch onto catchy nicknames as a way to boost sales.) The dark and brooding opening slow movement, the prevalence of the minor mode throughout, and the reckless abandon of the two fast movements are all characteristics of this symphony that hold with the idea that this work could be a reflection upon the suffering of Christ.
Symphony No. 49 achieved widespread popularity in Haydn’s time, judging from the abundant number of contemporary copies found throughout Europe. It is perhaps the finest example of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) period, in which subjectivity and the extreme emotions of the individual take precedence over the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and empirical thought. Sudden and extreme shifts in dynamics, mood, and temperament pervade the work. The oboes and horns often hold plangent chords while the strings scurry back and forth or weave melancholy lines on top of halting bass notes. Only the Trio of the Minuet, with its F Major tonality, grants the listener a glimmer of sunshine.
Kyu-Young Kim ©2015
My title, O Mikros, O Megas was inspired by the opening lines of Axion Esti, by the great contemporary Greek poet, Odysseas Elytis: “Aftos O Kosmos, O Mikros, O Megas” (This tiny world, this enormous world). There are no direct literal connections to the words, only the feeling of the intended ambiguity; certainly no superficial dynamic nor density parallels. In fact, it is to me that within the quietest and most inwardly moments of the work, the world seems to fully impose its power and enormity. At the same time, the figurative “flip-side” of my work's title could well be “This tiny fleeting life, this huge eternal life” – a reflection on recent world circumstances including the tumbling world, loss of friends and my own personal advancement into the foothills of an ageless maturity.
Thinking and hearing into the sonic qualities and potentials of the string orchestra, my creative and inward sensibilities seemed to eschew many “fast and loud” possibilities for those of quietude and grace. I fought with this tendency, frankly, during the word's composition, however, in the end, textures of long, quietly floating tensions won out, for the most part. There are faster movements among the four and imploding episodes, but the heart and largeness of the work are made manifest in the second and last. All movements end quietly and the last, with my most preferred ending, a “dot dot dot” figure. In fact, in the score, the performers are given the option of repeating the final phrase for as long as desired, until the “end” of the work is felt.
George Tsontakis ©2016
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