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Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op. 56, Scottish (1829-42),

40 minutes

Felix Mendelssohn was born on February 3, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany and died on November 4, 1847 in Leipzig, Germany. Symphony No. 3 was first performed on March 3, 1842 in Leipzig by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by the compser. A revised edition of the work, representing its final form, was performed on March 17, 1842 conducted by Karl Bach. The work is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings.

The power of place as the muse to usher-in symphonic worlds is unparalleled. An excalibur of inspiration, there is a kind of supernatural radiation that place bestows upon those who cross her borders, whether it is foreign soil and seas, the undiscovered frontiers of the cosmos, or the backyard stomping grounds of one’s home, all are ripe with creative treasures, imparting a musical lightning bolt of imagination. Many wield its power through the brush, written word and the composer's pen.


Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (Scottish) is one of two pieces with origins tracing back to his Scotland visit in 1829. From this sojourn, came the Third Symphony and the concert overture Die Hebriden Op. 26, more popularly known as Fingalshöhle (Fingal’s Cave). The journey to the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh would leave long lasting impressions on the composer, planting the seeds of a Scottish symphony that would not be fully formed until 1842, germinating for 13 years, beginning with sketches in 1831. In a letter home dated July 30, 1829, he would write, 


“In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; a little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door: up this way they came and found Rizzio in that dark corner, where they pulled him out, and three rooms off there is a dark corner, where they murdered him. The chapel close to it is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything round is broken and mouldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I have found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.”


Thus, the power of place, one with a history of bloodshed, sets the stage for the composer’s Scottish essay. The work is in four movements, but just as the Violin Concerto, there are clues to the music unfolding in one long dramatic movement. With the absence of end bar lines after the first three movements, Mendelssohn instructs at the beginning of the score, that each movement be performed with very little pause in-between.


While the symphony does not employ any Scottish folk music, prefacing and framing the work with a Scottish lens, illuminates the composer’s perspective of drawing inspiration from a different land and culture. And so, associating the work with “Scotland” is to orient the mind into finding something Scottish in what is ultimately a very German sounding symphony.


Mendelssohn’s reference to the murder of David Rizzio, the private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, will offer insight into framing the first movement and the entire symphony. There is a palpable weight of mourning, an omen, in the introduction of the first movement Andante con moto. Opening with an unorthodox orchestration of woodwinds, horns and divided violas, these crowned few, weep in agony. Violins continue as ghosts recalling tears of a royal suffering. If this is the beginning Mendelssohn’s letter foretold, a tale of the broken begins, an Ossianic ballad, ushered forth by the spirits of place, commanding to the composer at Holyrood so long ago, to listen, witness, to tell its story.


The sonata form of the first movement begins to move with the exposition proper, marked Allegro un poco agitato. In 6/8 time, the clarinets and violins begin to weave the first theme in A-minor, a kind of dark jig. There is palatial intrigue and undercurrents of turmoil boiling under the ornamented facades of fanfare. The oboe, then flutes, will offer lighter sighs with the second theme in the dominant minor key. The music erupts into an uproar and a swaying dance-like music ensues. Given the specificity of inspiration, Mary’s husband Lord Darnley became jealous of Rizzio, taken by rumors that the secretary had impregnated the queen. There is hidden avarice, jealousy, in this music, of witnessing and eavesdropping, fatal glances towards the innocent guilty. It is a corruption amongst the veneer of a royal sheen that can be felt in the opposition of raging music with the sways and comforts of a benign, though socially forbidden friendship.


The development will unify the strings in octaves and rhythmic unison, lingering on a sustained tone. Winds enter in harmony and color the tone in different shades of minor. The strings proceed to chant, perhaps pray, in some ancient Gaelic language. A sequence of chromatic descents tinge the music with sorrow and malice. Whose music is this? With the successive minor harmonies, this is no prayer, it is a bargain for something sinister and insidious. If this is the music of Lord Darnley, this be the music of conspiracy, a plot of crime as the strings stir in wrathful figures under a wind-wall of harmonic fate. 


Darnley would join Protestant nobles in planning the murder of Rizzio and the deed would be executed viciously during a dinner with Mary and ladies-in-waiting. The music conspires, moving pieces on a chess board, and fragments of the first and second themes will intertwine in overlapping call and response. The lush closing dance-like theme is given new meaning, the last straw, ignorant of the wielding dagger blows to come. 


The cellos will emerge with a long melody that will carry over to duet with the main theme in the recapitulation. There is something ghostly in the texture with the long floating line colored by fleeting rhythmic figures above. Wandering and slumbering in sadness, this is likely the music of Rizzio, who was also a musician and accomplished cantor. The secondary theme will return confirmed in the home key and there is a thirst for blood, blood will be drawn in this music. Mendelssohn brings back the unison strings to set a cold-blooded coda that tumbles into storms of chromatic swells. Three chordal stabs bring an end to the rage, and the winds peter out becoming lethargic. The royal party, the winds, horns and violas of the Andante introduction, return in mourning, witnesses to the ultimate barbarity of humanity, the omen fulfilled. History records Darnley and a mob of nobles barging into the dinner, accusing Mary of adultery. Holding her at gunpoint, they drag Rizzio hiding behind Mary, and proceed to stab him ferociously. His body would reveal 57 wombs by the dagger.


Where the first movement lingered in the dark history of Edinburgh, the second movement marked Vivace non troppo, a scherzo, transports the symphony from the bloody Lowlands to the Highlands of Iverness.  The clarinet will begin with a pentatonic-kissed folk-like Gaelic melody. With an opening turn followed by dotted march-like rhythms, the tune ends with the so-called “Scottish Snap,” a short rhythm followed by a longer duration (eighth note followed by a quarter note). The buzzing activity of the strings will recall the magical fairy music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a peak at the score will reveal a composer in his prime maturity, orchestrating and choreographing galloping and sweeping wind gestures as pictorial illustrations, a notational onomatopoeia. The crisp and brisk Highland winds will be felt through the morning beauty of the rural evergreen country side, of hills and mountains sprinkled with the aged stone of castle battlements. The essence of distant bagpipes and the changing of the castle guard, will march and sing in this sprint of a tour through the Scottish landscape by horseback. 


The adagio of the third movement will offer a familiar Mendelssohn dish, a song without words. Beginning with violins, stuttering short phrases, breathless in gesture, are decorated with arpeggiating pizzicato figures. A regal heralding of dotted rhythms in the horn sound in the distance, a figure Beethoven used to great degree in the first movement of the Ninth Symphony. The violins will continue with a tender melody that will end in a sweet musical embrace as the second violins and viola counter the first’s as arms joined. This beauty is interrupted with the royal dotted rhythms that build into a processional, and will recall the ominous nature of the first movement. 


The story of Mary, Queen of Scots, is of tragedy. The notorious circumstances of her demise blood stain the pages of Scottish and English history books. Beheaded for her alleged involvement in the 1586 Babington Plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I, Mendelssohn channels this tragedy in a kind of coronation march to an execution. In spirit, this music will recall a different song with words, Purcell’s Dido’s Lament. The theme will return three more times, each with a different accompanying texture that will add beauty and pathos; once more in the violins, then with a timelessness in the horns and cellos, and lastly with bittersweet melancholy as the violin and cellos move in octaves. With each restatement, the rhythms of the regal death decree interrupt, and the closer to her end, Mary approaches. The work concludes softly, returning to the opening stuttering of short phrases, the last unspoken words, the last few breaths of the Queen of Scots.


There is much speculation as to the meaning of the final movement, marked Allegro vivacissimo. In cut time, Mendelssohn originally marked the tempo as Allegro guerriero (quick and warlike) and it is this war-like moniker that may give a unique German framing of Scottish history. An anxious and agitated energy is omnipresent in the super-saturated tapestry of dotted and double dotted rhythms, it is exasperating. Pantings of heavy breathing, huffing and puffing as though invaders pillaging in medias res will be immediate. The history of Scotland is tempestuous, from its origins before the Roman Empire to the struggle for independence that reach well into the present, the strife and battlecry will come through the finale with an inextinguishable might.


Scotland’s history with Germany, will reveal many strong links in linguistic origins, trade and the backdrop of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). These strong bonds likely would not escape Mendelssohn’s German heritage, and thus the work ends in a highly Germanic celebratory salute. The long sustaining drone from the first movement will return near the end, creating a sonorous field for clarinet and bassoon melodies to mingle. The dark serenity is then quickly eclipsed with a kind of nationalist pride. Some have suggested the glorious and victorious coda marked Allegro maestoso assai, alludes to an all-mens German chorus, speaking to the German roots in Scottish history. A less Germanic interpretation would be the celebration of a shared brotherhood and cultural affinity. The horns and cellos will return in 6/8 time with great prominence, echoing Rizzio music and texture, and it will be difficult to ignore that this triumphant tune and hymn are not imitating a parade and fleet of bagpipes. 


There are five numbered symphonies in the composer’s catalogue, however the numbering does not correlate to the order in which these works were composed, but rather published. The correct chronological ordering would follow in this sequence, First, Fifth, Fourth, Second and Third. Symphony No. 1 was composed when Mendelssohn was 15 years old. The 1841 Symphony No. 2 “Lobgesang - Song of Praise” was published a year later, the same year Symphony No. 3  would be completed. The Italian Symphony No. 4, was composed in 1832, but would not see publication until 1851. The Reformation Symphony No. 5  was composed after the first, between 1829-30, but was the last to be published in 1868. So while numbered Symphony No. 3, this is actually the “Fifth” and final symphony, and it is not to be mistaken as a youthful work, not at all, but as a monument to a composer that had reached the height of maturity, expressing the darkest of histories with a strong national pride of his Scottish and Germanic muses. © MTF

*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on June 11-13, 2021.

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