The first performances in Vienna of operas by Rossini (Tancredi and L’inganno felice) took place in November 1816. The teenage Schubert was drawn to the music, although he was already familiar with the Italian style, as he had studied with Antonio Salieri and written some vocal works in Italian. He was impressed with Rossini’s music: “You cannot deny that he has extraordinary genius,” he told to a friend. “The orchestration is highly original at times, and the vocal writing too.” The influence of Rossini is evident in the scoring and mood of some of his Sixth Symphony, as well as in two overtures he composed in late 1817. Although the subtitle “in the Italian style” was later applied by his older brother Ferdinand, the music speaks for itself.
One of the overtures, more likely the C Major performed today, was officially premiered in 1818 at a concert that marked the first significant public performance of a secular composition by Schubert. The work was unanimously praised in both Viennese and foreign papers. The reviews commented on qualities praised in his music ever since: “The second half of the concert began with a wondrously lovely overture by a young composer, Mr. Franz Schubert, a pupil of our much venerated Salieri, who has learned already how to touch and stir all hearts. Although the theme was surprisingly simple, a wealth of the most astonishing and agreeable ideas developed from it, worked out with vigor and skill.”
The C-Major Overture begins with an extended Adagio introduction in which the opening gesture—an ornamental run of three notes to a loud chord—is typically Rossinian. As with the Italian master, woodwinds dominate. When the introduction approaches the following fast main part of the Overture there may be a nod to Beethoven, specifically to the repeated notes in the comparable transition section in the first movement of his recent Seventh Symphony. The ensuing Allegro opens with a quiet violin melody continued by the woodwinds. A second theme in longer note values is first presented by flutes and oboes. Schubert employs the famous Rossini crescendo as well, although he does not have them build as gradually. The Overture concludes with a racing stretto (più mosso), a typically Rossinian dash to the finish, with festive brass featured at the end.
Christopher Gibbs ©2011
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
Viva l’Italia! Mendelssohn embraced this land of bright sunshine and hot-blooded romance, qualities he infused into his ebullient Italian Symphony. Schubert’s stirring Overture also honors Italian music, while a standout concerto from Haydn’s time points to Italy’s role in creating a new kind of star: the virtuoso soloist.