About this Piece
Mendelssohn went to Italy in October 1830. The trip lasted 10 months – he started in Venice and worked his way south to Rome, stopping in Bologna and Florence along the way. During his stay in Rome, he witnessed the coronation of Pope Pius VIII and the city’s festivities during Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter). From Rome, he went on to Naples and visited Pompeii before returning to Germany through Genoa and Milan.
His impressions of the trip were recorded in a series of watercolors and sketches – Mendelssohn was a decent amateur artist – and in the present Symphony. There is nothing particularly Italian about the Symphony until its final movement. Rather, the work strives more to convey a series of impressions of Italy – Mediterranean sunshine, religious solemnity, monumental art and architecture, and open countryside.
The Symphony opens with a burst of sound – woodwinds and pizzicato strings – whose irrepressible eighth notes become the accompaniment to a jubilant string melody. The winds play an especially prominent role in this movement, with Mendelssohn treating them with a great degree of freedom that gives the movement a transparent, airy texture. It’s like a musical rendition of the Italian blue sky that impressed Mendelssohn, who was used to the cloud-flecked skies of northern Europe, so deeply (he once described the Symphony as “blue sky in A major”). The movement is in sonata form, but it also uniquely includes a transitional passage between the exposition and its repeat whose material is developed later on. The turbulent minor-key development section also may remind the listener that Mendelssohn was working on his storm-cloud-riddled “Scottish” Symphony (in A minor) at the same time he was composing the “Italian.”
In the second movement, an Andante con moto in D minor, Mendelssohn recalls the impressive processions he had witnessed during his time in Rome. He evokes these with a dusky melody (oboes, clarinets, and violas) that unfolds over a plodding bass-line. This alternates with two contrasting, relaxed, major-key sections.
The flowing minuet (Con moto moderato), with its legato writing for stings and winds, offers a musical equivalent of the symmetrical forms and restrained beauty of some of the architecture Mendelssohn saw during his Italian sojourn. The trio sounds vaguely militaristic, with its fanfare-like melodic figure for horns and bassoons.
In the finale, Mendelssohn uses another dance, the raucous Neapolitan saltarello, as the basis of the movement. He never relaxes the tension during the movement, which hurtles to a close with a minor-key reiteration of the first movement’s opening theme.
Mendelssohn completed the Symphony March 13, 1833 in partial fulfillment of a commission from the Philharmonic Society of London. He conducted the premiere exactly two months later, on May 13, which was a great success – the work was repeated in June. Mendelssohn, however, was never entirely satisfied with the Symphony. He revised it twice, in 1837 and again before he died in 1847, but it was never published during his lifetime. This final version premiered in Leipzig on November 1, 1849, with Julius Rietz conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra. It is this version that was published in 1851 and is regularly performed today.
– John Mangum