Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony
- May 21, 2016
- May 20, 2016
In addition to ranking among the most significant German musical figures of his generation, Paul Hindemith is moreover renowned for the remarkable breadth of his abilities. He was a composer of stunning creative facility, capable of producing an impeccably crafted piece of music as easily as writing a letter. He was also an excellent violinist and violist (skilled enough to premiere William Walton’s Viola Concerto) and a competent clarinetist to boot.
In an era whose most prominent composers built their careers on orchestral music and opera, Hindemith made his name in chamber music. His oeuvre includes seven string quartets, of which the Fourth, his Opus 22, has enjoyed the most enduring popularity. (The work was premiered by the Amar Quartet, recognized in its day among Europe’s foremost quartets, and in which Hindemith was the violist.)
Hindemith composed his String Quartet no. 4 in 1921. It is a product of his early maturity, reflecting a young, cosmopolitan composer, exploring a wide variety of styles. The music of this period demonstrates the influence of composers ranging from Brahms and Strauss to Debussy, Ravel, Puccini, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky, as well as American jazz.
Over the next four decades, Hindemith’s music would become steelier, anti-Romantic, harmonically experimental, though always rooted in tonality. In the years following the Fourth Quartet’s premiere, Hindemith became a leading proponent of Gebrauchtsmusik—literally, “utility music”—an idea based on the belief that music should be practical, bridging the distance between modern composer and audience, rather than a Beethovenian vehicle for self-expression.
The Quartet might be heard as a precursor to Hindemith’s essays in Gebrauchtsmusik. The composer wrote about the piece, “It sounds well and is quite easy to listen to and to play, of which I am especially proud. … I declare with satisfaction that my works will be better and simpler (and about time too).”
The work takes the form of a suite in five short movements. The first is a slow, sinewy fugue, whose subject, though heavily chromatic, is likewise marked by a searing lyricism. Partway through, the movement erupts in a blistering climax, then recedes just as suddenly back to the enigmatic lyricism of what came before. The second movement’s unrelenting fury foreshadows the quartets of Shostakovich. Following this wild-eyed scherzo, Hindemith offers the listener a respite of sorts with the slow third movement, though this music too, in its eerie melodic and harmonic profile, registers a measure of disquiet. The ephemeral fourth movement is peculiarly rhapsodic, and proceeds without pause to the finale, a devilishly jaunty rondo.
Patrick Castillo ©2016
Admirers of Mozart’s serenades will find much to appreciate in his five violin concerti. In the late eighteenth century, the serenade genre, rooted in the tradition of musical courtship (think of the lover, supported by his mandolin-strumming friends, singing beneath his beloved’s window), expanded to include more public celebrations: weddings, graduations, and the like. Per Mozart’s contemporary J.A.P. Schulz: “The title ‘serenade’ is also used for purely instrumental compositions, which, to honor or congratulate specific personages, are performed at dusk in front of their houses… The composer must strive to write simple, flowing melodies, set primarily to consonant rather than dissonant harmonies.”
The violin concerti, all completed in the year before Mozart’s twentieth birthday, might be heard as an extension of the serenades that mark his early years in Salzburg (Eine kleine Nachtmusik, et al.). They are untroubled works, recalling the serenades in both their compositional style and idyllic character. Equally so, the serenades, a number of which feature virtuosic solo violin writing, foreshadow the concerti. Mozart biographer Maynard Solomon surmises that the third, fourth, and fifth concerti specifically “are the highest examples of his serenade style after it has been detached from the serenade proper and reconstituted within a separate genre.”
The Third Violin Concerto, the most beloved of Mozart’s five, is a bright and gregarious work, immediately from the guileless tune that begins the opening Allegro. A winsome repartee between soloist and orchestra sustains the movement’s carefree tenor; even a darker, minor-key passage midway through the movement suggests more thoughtful introspection than emotional distress.
Mozart implements a dramatic change in color in the Adagio, dispensing with oboes and introducing flutes. Solomon describes this music as “inhabit[ing] a world of plenitude, [in which] beauty is everywhere for the taking. … [T]he beauties succeed each other with a breathtaking rapidity, their outpouring of episodic interpolations suggesting that we need not linger over any single moment of beauty, for beauty is abundant, it is to be found ‘here, too,’ and ‘there, as well.’”
Oboes return, as does the buoyancy of the first movement, for the Concerto’s rondo finale. This movement, though contrasting in character to the Adagio, is equally rich with delights. In a brief Andante episode, the soloist resembles a singing troubadour, accompanied by lute-like pizzicati in the orchestral strings and atmospheric sighs in the oboes and horns. A spirited Allegretto passage follows, pointing the Concerto towards its mirthful conclusion.
Patrick Castillo ©2016
In July of 1829, while vacationing in Scotland, Mendelssohn wrote to his family:
"In darkening twilight today, we went to the Palace where Queen Mary lived and loved. There is a little room to be seen there with a spiral staircase at its door. That is where they went up and found Rizzio in the room, dragged him out, and three chambers away there is a dark corner where they murdered him. The chapel beside it has lost its roof and is overgrown with grass and ivy, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything there is ruined, decayed and open to the clear sky. I believe that I have found there today the beginning of my Scotch Symphony."
This striking imagery points towards the picturesque opening of the Scottish Symphony, whose slow introduction begins with as breathtaking a statement of Romanticism as any poem of Heine or painting of Caspar David Friedrich. Throughout the symphony’s first movement, Mendelssohn’s darkly hued orchestration conjures bleak northern climes. Following a soulful arioso in the violins and a pregnant silence, the music proceeds to the main body of the movement, marked Allegro un poco agitato. This is music of understated urgency and, at its climactic moments, of devastating power.
A new melodic idea in the cellos heralds the movement’s recapitulation. When the first theme returns, it appears in counterpoint with this cello melody. “Every page of the score,” wrote Robert Schumann, “proves how skillfully Mendelssohn retrieves one of his former ideas, how delicately he ornaments a theme, so that it comes to us in a new light.”
The symphony’s thematic coherence is more subtly in evidence in the Vivace. The ascending four-note gesture that began the symphony returns—sped up beyond recognition—in the ebullient clarinet melody. (Schumann again: “In point of plan, Mendelssohn’s symphony is distinguished by its intimate connection of all four movements.) The clarinet begins with the same four-note ascent, but in idyllic F major rather than cloudy A minor—then gets gleefully carried away.
The Adagio is a ravishing utterance, awash in devastating melody. Its piercing lyricism echoes Mendelssohn’s signature Songs without Words for solo piano. The finale begins as a mischievous folk dance, but evolves a more complex psychic profile as new ideas are introduced. The journey culminates in a radiant majesty as sublime as the movement’s beginning was rustic and earthy.
Mendelssohn penned the first sixteen measures of what would become his Scottish Symphony on that long-ago trip to Scotland in 1829, but did not return to and complete the work until 1842. (In 1831, he confessed that he was struggling to “find his way back into the Scottish fog mood.”) It is thus his fifth and final symphony, though it is numbered as his third.
Patrick Castillo ©2016