Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony

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  • January 20, 2018
    General Mills Foundation


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Franz Joseph Haydn

Symphony No. 49 in F minor, La Passione

When Prince Nikolaus Esterházy completed a lavish country palace in 1766, the workload for his tireless Kapellmeister, Joseph Haydn, increased dramatically. The “summer” seasons at the estate stretched to be nearly year-round, and all the while Haydn had to produce operas, provide music for church services, mount concerts and attend to any other musical needs for his insatiable patron. “In Eszterháza,” Haydn later acknowledged, “I was forced to become original.”

Some of Haydn’s most original efforts in the late 1760s and 1770s reflected an artistic trend that has been dubbed Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) after a play of the same name. From literature to painting to playwriting, artists dared to explore emotional extremes and dark discomfort; for Haydn, it led to his first symphonies constructed in minor keys.

The Symphony No. 49 was among Haydn’s earliest minor-key symphonies, and it is arguably his darkest. Instead of the usual order of movements, this F-minor symphony begins with a devastating Adagio in F minor, a practice in line with the older “church sonatas” that arranged the movements slow-fast-slow-fast. A rather fast second movement continues in the same key of F minor, its theme marked by aggressive leaps and driving counterpoint. The key persists for the Menuet third movement, at least until the contrasting trio section in F major provides the symphony’s only substantial relief. The brisk, throbbing finale confirms this symphony’s F-minor fate.

This symphony’s nickname, “The Passion,” did not come from Haydn, and there is no indication that the symphony had any religious connection other than a performance during Holy Week in 1790 that advertised “La passione.” Another early source labels this symphony “Il quakuo di bel’humore” (“The Waggish Quaker”), which puts a completely different sheen on this symphony’s musical mood. If accurate, it suggests that Haydn may have originally created this music for the stage, to accompany a popular satire featuring a pious Quaker character. In that version of history, Haydn’s over-the-top emotions would have played as comedy, not tragedy!

Aaron Grad ©2017

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George Tsontakis

O Mikros, O Megas (This Tiny World, This Enormous World) for String Orchestra

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

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Felix Mendelssohn

Symphony No. 4, Italian

At twenty, Mendelssohn did what most young men from wealthy families did at the time: He embarked on a “grand tour” through Europe. Whereas Scotland inspired the stormy “Hebrides” Overture and the “Scottish” Symphony, a visit to sunny Italy sparked a symphony that, according to the composer, was “the jolliest piece I have ever done.”

Mendelssohn sketched part of that symphony while in Italy in 1830–31, and he completed the work in 1833, using it to fulfill a prestigious commission from the Philharmonic Society of London, the same group that had commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Mendelssohn made substantial revisions to the symphony’s final three movements in 1834, and he intended to revise the first movement, too, but he postponed that task and finally suppressed the symphony altogether. The work was published posthumously as the Symphony No. 4, although it was actually composed third.

Mendelssohn’s bright impressions of Italy are borne out by the bouncing themes and running triplet pulse of the Allegro vivace movement that opens the symphony. Still, this is no mere musical “postcard”—just note the finely wrought development section, which shows the work of a composer equally fluent in Bach’s formal counterpoint and Beethoven’s obsessive manipulation of recurring themes. The Andante con moto may have been influenced by a religious processional Mendelssohn witnessed in Naples, an image that fits with the movement’s walking bass and grave harmonies.

The moderate pace and smooth flow of third movement resemble the minuets native to the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, as opposed to the more rambunctious scherzos popularized by Beethoven. In the contrasting trio section, the horns and bassoons indulge in spacious phrases that impart an outdoor quality, until the mood turns momentarily menacing with the interjection of trumpets, timpani and a stern minor key.

For the symphony’s whirlwind finale, Mendelssohn borrowed lively rhythmic patterns from Italian folk dancing. He named the movement after the saltarello, a dance from central Italy defined by its fast triplet pulse and its leaping movements.

Aaron Grad ©2017

About This Program

Hear the full spectrum of the SPCO’s skills as an unconducted ensemble on a program that stretches from Classical to contemporary. Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 is a prime example of his emotional and evocative Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) symphonies. George Tsontakis’s reflection on recent turbulence in the world was a 2016 SPCO commission. Finally, SPCO musicians take on Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, a romantic masterpiece sketched during the composer’s tour of Europe in the 1830s.