Spring Symphonies: 18/60 Mendelssohn: Symphony No 3 “Scottish”

It took Mendelssohn much longer to finish his Scottish symphony (about thirteen years) than his Italian Symphony (which was finished in a year) - the latter interrupting work on the former.  The European tour brought Mendelssohn to London where his First Symphony was a hit and it was a subsequent tour of Scotland and allegedly a visit to Holyrood House, which prompted the idea of a Scottish symphony.  Mendelssohn’s genius and my predilection for the that wonderful country made it a real hit for me.  Indeed I remember a Scottish holiday when I was three, but my first adult visit to the country was accompanied on a Sony Walkman by a cassette tape of this work and the country, its cities and landscape seemed a perfect fit and music and culture combine in my head.  I can’t turn the clock back but I wonder what it is to know the music but never to have experienced Scotland?

Above all this symphony has an indigenous “feel” to it’s every bar.  We know Mendelssohn was a child prodigy but also thirsty for experience: his trip to Fingal’s Cave inspired a brilliant tone poem and reinforced seeing the real thing - crashing waves and all.  But there’s no programme to either his Scottish or Italian symphonies and they remain masterpieces in the art of capturing place but to my mind Scotland is the more successful.

It begins with a solemn introduction as so many Scottish conversations do and moves to a free following intensely lyrical first movement proper with a series of strophes within it which if they weren’t thought traditionally Scottish before, certainly seem so now.  There’s a certain formality about it all but great energy and gusto at times.  

The scherzo which follows is magnificent and if you only ever listen to one piece of Mendelssohn this is it.  There’s a traditional dance like rhythm and a true Scottish snap to it - but it is not the traditional scherzo form - it wears the sonata form lightly and culminates in an ebullient ending which will raise a smile o’er the hills and glens and I dare say in the Highlands too.  It is worth noting that Mendelssohn encourages the conductor not to break between movements in this work and the effect here - as in Schumann’s First and Fourth symphonies - is so much the better for that.

The slow movement starting with a steady tread but the gait grows in nobility as the movement progress to a lofty climax.  The tone is lordly, or should that be lairdly, and quite distinctly self-assured and positive without some of the sentiment that was later to weigh down some Romantic composers (or defeat them all together).  The last movement has astonishing vigour and swings into action from bar 1.  It has a feel of friendly rivalry and a terribly confident air about it.  Mendelssohn’s music is so busy and an absolute delight in his use of orchestral devices to maintain momentum - it is hard not to be completely won over by this portrait of a people and their land which is so sunny in disposition, determined, creative and alert.  The music positive bubbles with laughter. It plays cat and mouse through a quieter section and drops into fugue to push things along. The landscape never darkens, the sweet beauty is readily visualised, songful and fulsome.  And then something spine tingling occurs which marks this symphony out. 

The melody is lengthened - there’s a deal more tension in the music and then it slows to a stop or as near to one as the conductor dares.  A lone oboe summons a mist over this beautiful country, the music is becalmed, a calm stillness prevails - how is this portrait to close? It’s here that my tears start to well up.  From this hiatus, the astonishing young German brings forth the music of Scottish identity - a great hymn which somehow carries the scull of the pipes, the clans, the villages and great cities, the landscape and thousands of years of culture with it to the glory of this wonderful country and it’s people  It is masterful and moving especially for all of us know and love Scotland.  His use of the horns as counter to the stirring string melodies is magnificent and emphatic - it is gloriously assured and dare I even say independent music.  And then by turns he moves this great celebration into a exultant glorious conclusion. Mendelssohn alluded to a men’s choir in reference to this section - starting in formal nationalism ending in that welcoming convivial spirit.  

That coda is all I need to picture many wonderful visits and friends I have in Scotland and to get me planning my next trip. This is a skilful and enduring tribute.  It needs no more words from me - it is as evocative as anything anyone else has written and it is a great symphony celebrating a great country and it’s great people.  Hear it!

Here's Herbert Blomstedt in Amsterdam 6 years ago - also demonstrating what an excellent orchestra this work needs...


Popular Posts