Orchestral Music: 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 an extraordinary child prodigy, a composer who had his first public concert performance at the age of nine. When the most distinguished musicians of the day assured his father, a wealthy banker, that the boy was an authentic genius, nothing was spared to bring him to artistic maturity. Mendelssohn wrote a great deal of music in his youth, thirteen symphonies and several concertos, for example, which he considered juvenilia and never released for publication, but in this privileged workshop he developed skills and polished his craft. At the age of sixteen, he wrote his nearly perfect String Octet and at seventeen, the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. In the spring of 1829, when he was twenty, he left home for three years of travel. Mendelssohn did not fail his father. Posterity has his Italian Symphony and his Scotch Symphony as souvenirs of his travel. The impression he made on London was so great that the music of two or three generations of English composers was directly influenced by his example.

The Italian Symphony, completed when Mendelssohn had just turned twenty-four, was never published in his lifetime because he was not satisfied with it. The last movement caused him considerable anguish, and he always planned to revise it. He, however, was alone in his judgment: historically; critics have often called this a “perfect” work, many noting that the last movement is a “gem.”

In the spring of 1829, as he began his twenty-first year, Mendelssohn was sent out into the world with instructions from his father "to examine the various countries closely and to fix on one where I wished to live. I was to make my name and gifts known, and was to press forward in my work." He did his father's bidding first in Britain, where his work came to be loved so admired that it influenced the course of the art there for the rest of the century. Two compositions inspired there, the Hebrides Overture and the Scottish Symphony, are still numbered among his most loved works.

At the suggestion of the great German poet Goethe, the next leg of Mendelssohn’s travels, begun in May 1830, took him to Italy for about a year and a half. There he sketched his sunny First Piano Concerto and began this Italian Symphony, which he could not finish there. After a period spent at home and a winter in Paris, he was still not satisfied with the score, but an invitation to present a new symphony at a concert of the London Philharmonic Society sent him back to work on it. The first performance was on May 13, 1833. There were several later performances in London, too, all of them successful with the knowledgeable musicians and audiences there, but Mendelssohn always felt 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 his friend Ignaz Moscheles. In the spring of 1851, this best loved of all the Mendelssohn symphonies was published at last.

Mendelssohn declared that all of Italy features 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 beams its way brightly through an updated Classical first-movement form. The second movement, Andante con moto, a solemn processional may have been a pilgrims' march; it was probably motivated by Mendelssohn’s experience of a religious procession in the streets of Naples. The third is a smooth-flowing minuet, Con moto moderato, with an ingratiating middle section. The finale, Presto, the most characteristically Italian of the symphony's four movements takes on the style of a saltarello, a lively Roman or Neapolitan country-dance, dating from the sixteenth century. It is a leaping dance performed by a man with a woman partner who holds her apron up in the air as she dances, and it is almost always in fast triple meter.

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

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