My family have no doubt told you of the exhilarating impression made on me by the first sight of the plains of Italy. I hurry from one enjoyment to another hour by hour, and constantly see something novel and fresh; but immediately on my arrival I discovered some masterpieces of art, which I study with deep attention, and contemplate daily for a couple of hours at least. These are three pictures by Titian. The "Presentation of Mary as a Child in the Temple;" the "Assumption of the Virgin;" and the "Entombment of Christ." There is also a portrait by Giorgione, representing a girl with a cithern in her hand, plunged in thought, and looking forth from the picture in serious meditation (she is apparently about to begin a song, and you feel as if you must do the same): besides many others.
Letter from Felix Mendelssohn while in Venice.
During his 1830-1831 tour of Italy Mendelssohn sketched out the work that would become his fourth symphony and gave it its title ‘Italian’. He completed its first performing version on March 13th 1833 while in Berlin in fulfilment of a commission from the Philharmonic Society of London and journeyed there to conduct its premiere on May 13th 1833. The symphony was a great success but Mendelssohn was was never entirely satisfied with it revising it twice, in 1837 and again before he died in 1847. Right up to his death he refused to let it be either published or performed and it wasn’t until two years after his death that his final version of it was performed in Leipzig on November 1st 1849 by the Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Julius Rietz to great acclaim. Two years later in 1851 the 1847 version was published immediately the canon and becoming what it is today his most popular and most performed work.
As I said above the title Italian Symphony originated with Mendelssohn himself but there isn’t anything particularly Italian about it until its final movement. It’s scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings and is more a series of musical impressions or sketches that convey his impressions of southern sunshine, religious solemnities, monumental art and architecture, and picturesque scenes. The first movement (Allegro vivace) opens with a burst of woodwind and pizzicato string writing whose eight notes rapidly become the accompaniment to a sprightly and jubilant string melody. The wind instruments feature heavily and their freeform expressiveness gives this movement its transparent and airy feeling – it’s a musical sketch of the blue Italian sky (Mendelssohn once described the symphony as blue sky in A major). It’s in sonata form which is conventional enough but it has a unique, and very surprising feature in that it incorporates a transitional passage between the first theme and its repeat and this transitional material is developed later on.
The second movement (Andante con moto) is in D minor and evokes the religious processions that Mendelssohn found so impressive during his time in Rome:
Here I must deliver a eulogy on monks; they finish a picture at once, giving it tone and colour, with their wide loose gowns, their pious meditative, gait, and their dark aspect….In Albano, among girls with pitchers on their heads, vendors of flowers and vegetables, and all the crowd and tumult, we saw a coal-black dumb monk, returning to Monte Cavo, who formed a singular contrast to the rest of the scene. They seem to have taken entire possession of all this splendid country, and form a strange melancholy ground-tone for all that is lively, gay, and free, and the ever-living cheerfulness bestowed by nature. It is as if men, on that very account, required a counterpoise.
Letter from Felix Mendelssohn while in Rome.
It introduces a beautiful somewhat mournful melody that is perhaps a tribute to his teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter who had died recently.
Surprisingly instead of a Scherzo the third movement is a Minuet (Con moto moderato) it’s a lovely piece written in the classic style and evoking Haydn and Mozart but with a slight twist throughout that makes it clear who it is whose music we are listening to. The trio with its Romantic theme in the horns and delightful contrasted material for the violins and flutes is quintessential Mendelssohn.
It’s not until we get to the fourth and final movement (Presto and Finale: Saltarello) that the symphony begins to earn its Italian cognomen it takes a Neapolitan folk dance melody – the "Saltarello" of the title, and develops it, it positively skips along gaining motivic interest and momentum as moves forward. Mendelssohn never relaxes the intensity of this movement which hurtles along incorporating as its second subject another vigorous Italian dance, the tarantella, which he mixes together with the saltarello in the symphony’s final bars ending in with the main theme in A minor which was another Mendelssohnian novelty as prior to this symphonies that began in minor keys always ended in major keys. Enjoy :-).
Video Source: F. Mendelssohn Symphony No 4 ‘Italian’ A major Gustavo Dudamel , La Scala Philarmonic (Full HD) – YouTube. Published on May 6, 2012 by ClassicalMusicTVHD