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Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90 "Italian" (1833-34)

Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai

I. Allegro vivace

II. Andante con moto

III. Con moto moderato

IV. Presto and Finale: Saltarello


The origins of Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony No. 4, completed in 1833, are traced to 1830 when the composer was in the middle of his 10-month stay in Venice and Rome. During Holy Week of the following year, the composer was present for the coronation of Pope Pius VIII, a vicar known for his conditional acceptance of mixed marriages between Catholics and Protestants.


In the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, the 1830s ended an era with the death of Kaʻahumanu (1768-1832), Queen Regent, during the reigns of Kamehameha II (1797-1824) and Kamehameha III (1814-1854). Of Kamehameha the Great's many wives, Kaʻahumanu was the most powerful and favored by the first monarch. In 1826, with Kamehameha III, she negotiated the first treaty with the United States, a free trade agreement under the administration of John Quincy Adams. Her early women's rights efforts saw a push to abolish the kapu system (which forbade men and women from eating together). Her embracing of Protestant Christianity led to a ban on Catholic teachings and then hula in 1830; 56 years later, in 1886, King Kalākaua lifted the ban on hula.



During his tour of Scotland in 1829, the 20-year-old Mendelssohn had designs on a surprise plan. The composer's parents had longed to visit Italy but refrained from the physical hardships of the journey. Mendelssohn's older sister, composer, and pianist, Fanny, had just married the Prussian painter William Hensel, who had studied in Italy for five years and was eager to show his new bride and in-laws what the Holy City offered. In letters to his youngest sister Rebecka, Mendelssohn conspired to organize a surprise Italian trip, asking her to keep his plans secret:


August 10, 1829

"Now listen to my great plan, but tell nobody! I will persuade our parents to go to Italy next spring and pay me visit at Rome with you about Easter. I will it! Be silent about it all, as if I had never written to you. Change the conversation when it turns on Italy, do not allow Fanny and Hensel to petition mother and father about it. I will take them by surprise. Think of Italy!"


Mendelssohn's mother objected to traveling, and Fanny and Hensel welcomed a son, so the conspiracy ultimately failed. Nevertheless, the composer began his tour of Italy in October, writing to Hensel, "Italy at last! And what I have all my life considered as the greatest possible fortune is now begun, and I am basking in it." Then, in February, Mendelssohn wrote to Fanny from Rome with progress on the new symphony:


February 22, 1831

"I have once more begun to compose with fresh vigor, and the Italian symphony makes rapid progress; it will be the most sportive piece I have yet composed, especially the last movement."


The Fourth Symphony was commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London and completed on March 13, 1833. Mendelssohn conducted the premiere on May 13, 1833, but kept it from publication. He revised the work in 1837 and finally in 1847. The last revision (and posthumously published) premiered on November 1, 1849, with the Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Julius Rietz.



Opening with a bright gust of A-major, staccato woodwinds takes flight with spitfire horsepower. Mendelssohn described the symphony as a "blue sky in A-major." His letters often refer to Italy's skies, and it's felt in a brisk tarantella-like meter and tempo. The primary galloping violin theme leapfrogs with bravado, embodying the patter of Rossini's ʻLargo al factotumʻ from The Barber of Seville. There's the unmistakable spirit of Canzone Napoletana (Neapolitan song), especially with music composed 30 years later in 1880, Luigi Denza's Funiculì, Funiculà. A hunting call motive offers a Germanic seasoning, and clarinets and bassoons offer a less-hurried second theme in E-major. The development sautés the themes into several minor keys with a serving of Bach-flavored counterpoint; a final galloping sprint brings the sporting ride to an A-major finish line.



Mendelssohn devoted his entire letter to his family on April 4, 1831, to describe the crowded coronation ceremony of Pope Pius VIII. The composer writes of a grand procession of cardinals with intermittent intoned chants, psalms, hymns, and the music of J.S. Bach and Allegri's Miserere gracing the corridors. The events of Holy Week find salvation in the second movement. The opening and recurring antiphon heard in unison, calls to attention a priest's intoning of the Credo. Then, in the key of Domine Deus (D-minor), a chant-like melody in the oboes, bassoons, and violas proceeds with a walking bass accompaniment (reminiscent of Bach's Air on G) in the lower strings. The movement ends the procession quietly; a Pope crowned with three final pizzicato footsteps.



Mendelssohn serves a familiar dish in the third movement, a song without words. Returning to the key of A-major and E-major for the respective minuet and trio, there's a tinge of bittersweet nostalgia in the flowing violin melody and the punctuated horns in the trio. Mozart's and Haydn's voices shine through, giving warmth and comfort to a composer far from home and family. 



14th-century Tuscany opens the finale with the fury of A-minor. When Mendelssohn described the symphony as sporting, he meant the last movement; a dance fit for the Colosseum. The Saltarello is a fast triple meter dance characterized by a jump or hop; Mendelssohn must have seen comparisons with the Hoppetanz and composed the work in a duple meter, using triplets to capture the best of Italy and his native Germany. The composer's predilection for capricious string writing spares no expense; the music scurries in summersaults of scales and figurations, finishing with an A-minor dance-till-you-drop.


Felix Mendelssohn was born on February 3, 1809, in Hamburg, Germany, and died on November 4, 1847, in Leipzig, Germany.

© 2020 Michael-Thomas Foumai

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