Symphony No. 4, in A Major, Op. 90 (Italian Symphony) . . . Felix Mendelssohn

(Born February 3, 1809, in Hamburg; died November 4, 1847, in Leipzig)

Felix Mendelssohn was a child prodigy.  He began composing at a very young age, and although most of his early works do not reach the level of musical invention of his later compositions, they are often more refined in conception and surer in execution than the music many prominent mature composers of his time were producing.

The Italian Symphony, completed when Mendelssohn had just turned twenty-four, was never published in his lifetime because he never was fully satisfied with it.  The last movement caused him considerable anguish; he always talked about plans to revise it.  His judgment about this symphony’s quality, however, has never been shared; historically, critics have often called this a “perfect” work, many noting that the last movement is a particular “gem.”

In the spring of 1829, when he turned twenty‑one, Mendelssohn’s father urged him to travel so that he could “examine the various countries closely to fix on one where  [he] wished to live.  [He] was to make [his] name and gifts known, and was to press forward in [his] work.”  He traveled first to Britain, where his work came to be so admired that it had a very influential effect on the course of music there.  His travels to the British Isles inspired his Hebrides Overture and the Scottish Symphony.

The German poet Goethe suggested that Mendelssohn go to Italy for the next part of his travels. Beginning in May 1830, he spent about a year and a half there.  In Italy, he sketched his sunny Piano Concerto No. 1 and began this Italian Symphony.  After he returned home, he pronounced his dissatisfaction with the score, but when the London Phil­harmonic Society asked him to present a new symphony, the invitation inspired him to work on it again.  The first performance, given on May 13, 1833, in London, was followed by several other performances in London, too, all of them successful with knowledgeable musicians and with audiences; nevertheless, Mendelssohn always was unhappy with this work and felt that both the first and last movements needed to be completely rewritten.  Almost two years after he died, the symphony was performed in Germany for the first time, apparently lightly edited by Mendelssohn’s friend Ignaz Moscheles.  In the spring of 1851, this best loved of all the Mendelssohn symphonies was finally published.  Joining principles of classicism and romanticism, it has a special place in the 19th century canon.

The Italian Symphony, a work of warm harmonies and engaging melodies, is Mendelssohn's most classically styled piece, following in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart.  Mendelssohn remarked that all of Italy is contained in this work: its people, its landscapes and its art.  The underlying rhythm of the first movement, Allegro vivace, suggests an Italian dance, the tarantella, as the music makes its way through an updated Classical first‑movement in sonata form.  The movement opens with a loud string pizzicato followed by pulsating rhythm in the woodwinds before the violins announce the sunny and spirited first theme.  This movement has three themes.  Following the initial violin subject comes a more leisurely clarinet theme, and then the third theme, which Mendelssohn treats fugally. 

The second movement, Andante con moto, a solemn processional that may have been a pilgrims’ march, was probably motivated by Mendelssohn’s experience viewing a religious procession in the streets of Naples.  It is nostalgic and elegiac in character and begins with counterpoint in two voices.  The strings and winds play the principal material, while underneath there is an omnipresent “walking bass” line.  The third movement, an elegant, smooth, flowing Con moto moderato, could be called a minuet in everything but name; it contains an ingratiating middle section, and the trio is particularly beautiful.  The finale, Presto, in exuberant good spirits, could be called the most characteristically Italian of the symphony's four movements.  Mendelssohn composed it in the style of a saltarello, a lively Roman or Neapolitan country folk-dance dating from the 16th century. Performed by a man with a woman partner, who holds her apron up in the air as she dances, the saltarello almost always is characterized by its fast triple meter.

The Italian Symphony is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, kettledrums and strings.