In 1829, twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn made the first of many visits to England, and after giving a series of concerts in London he set off on a walking tour of Scotland, where he was able to visit the novelist Sir Walter Scott.
On August 8, Mendelssohn made a voyage out to the Hebrides Islands to see the island of Staffa, with its famous Fingal’s Cave, a name that is said to come from the Gaelic Fionn na Ghal, which means “Chief of Valor.” The crossing was extremely difficult. The day was dark and violently stormy, and not until they were almost on top of the island did the famous black basaltic cliffs emerge from the mists as the ocean crashed against the mouth of the dark cave.
The following concert excerpt is from Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave Overture, Opus 26.”
Mendelssohn made his first visit to England in 1829 at the age of twenty, and after a successful stay in London–where he conducted his own music and played the piano–he set off with his friend Karl Klingemann on a walking tour of Scotland that would lead him to compose two pieces.
The first was the Fingal’s Cave Overture, but the creation of the “Scottish” Symphony proved a more complex process. Mendelssohn claimed to have had the initial idea for this music during a visit to the ruined Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh: “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 . . . 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 today found in that old chapel the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.” (Program notes written by Eric Bromberger – see below.)
Below are concert excerpts from Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Opus 56 “Scottish” –
Vivace non troppo, Allegro vivacissimo, and Allegro maestoso assai.
Mendelssohn was famous for his scherzos, and the second movement of this symphony, marked Vivace non troppo, is one of his finest. It is actually in sonata form (and in 2/4 rather than the 3/4 standard in scherzos). Throughout, there is a sense of rustling motion–the music’s boundless energy keeps it pushing forward at every instant. Solo clarinet has the swirling first theme, and some have identified this tune’s extra final accent as the “Scottish snap” (though typical of Scottish folk music, such extra cadential accents are part of the folk music of many nations).
Allegro vivacissimo is full of fire and excitement (this is the one originally marked Allegro guerriero), beginning with the violins’ dancing, dotted opening idea. Along the way Mendelssohn incorporates a second theme, derived once again from the symphony’s introduction, and this energetic music eventually reaches a moment of calm. And here Mendelssohn springs a surprise: back comes the simple melody that opened the symphony, but now – marked Allegro maestoso assai and set in bright A major – it has acquired an unexpected nobility. That once-simple melody now gathers its strength and drives the symphony to an energetic conclusion.
Symphony of the Vines program notes are written by Eric Bromberger, who lives in Los Osos, who is program annotator for the Minnesota Orchestra, San Diego Symphony, Washington Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center, San Francisco Performances, the Chicago Symphony’s chamber series at the Art Institute of Chicago, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and many others. He was a violinist in the La Jolla Symphony for 32 seasons, and he has been a preconcert lecturer for the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1999.