Mendelssohn Symphony No 3 in A minor, Op 56 (Scottish)

Introduction and Allegro agitato
Scherzo assai vivace
Adagio cantabile
Allegro guerriero and Finale maestoso

In April 1829 the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn left his family home in Berlin bound for England. It was to be the longest of any absence from his close-knit family circle in his life thus far. He had those works of genius from his teenage years behind him – the Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and the time had come for him to embark on the Grand Tour which was expected of any young man of means in the early 19th century. Unusually, instead of France and Italy which were the more traditional countries at the top of the itinerary on a Grand Tour, Felix Mendelssohn was, after spending four months in London, to begin his Grand Tour in Scotland.

There were two reasons for choosing Scotland. Firstly, the Mendelssohn family were avid readers of the novels of Sir Walter Scot and of the epic poems of the 3rd-century Scottish Bard, Ossian, whom the Mendelssohn Family was yet to learn was a fake and actually the invention of the 18th-century Scottish writer, George Macpherson. So to send Felix to the land that inspired both of these writers that they so much admired seemed a natural choice, and it was hoped that Felix would meet the great Walter Scott when he was in Scotland.

And the second reason for choosing Scotland was that a close friend of the Mendelssohn family, Karl Klingemann, was based in London as a member of the Hanoverian diplomatic corps. Klingemann would be the ideal traveling companion for Felix on his Scottish journey; he was an amateur poet and musician and, from their joint letters home, appears to have had a zany sense of humour which must have endeared him to the Mendelssohns back in Berlin and would certainly have entertained Felix as they hiked through Scotland.  

Their Scottish tour began in Edinburgh and ended in Glasgow and, in between, they visited Melrose (where the two companions’ attempt to meet Sir Walter Scott at his home in Abbotsford was a failure – they “found Sir Walter in the act of leaving Abbotsford, stared at him like fools, drove eighty miles and lost a day for the sake of at best one half-hour of superficial conversation”), Stirling, Perth, Blair Atholl, the Pass of Killiecrankie, Aberfeldy, past the shores of Loch Tay, through Glen Coe to Fort William, on a steamer down Loch Linnhie to Oban and then over to Mull and Staffa where Fingal’s Cave so impressed them, and back via Inveraray and a steamer up the Clyde to Glasgow which they used as a base for further excursions to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. The reason we know this journey in such detail is that Mendelssohn made over 30 sketches of their trip which he carefully dated, so we have a record of exactly where they were on which day, and even the weather they experienced!

Map of Scotland showing route taken by Mendelssohn and Klingemann in 1829

Map of Scotland showing route taken by Mendelssohn and Klingemann in 1829

The actual composition of the Scottish Symphony was not completed until thirteen years after his Scottish journey making it, despite its designation as Symphony No 3, the last of his five symphonies. He returned to the work on occasions throughout the 1830s but found it difficult to recreate his “Scotch mood” and it was only in 1842 that the work received its first performance in Leipzig, being repeated in London in the same year to an audience that included the young Queen Victoria, to whom the symphony is dedicated.

It is clear from Mendelssohn’s letters even before their tour that he intended to write a symphony based on his Scottish experiences and the opening of the work came to him on the evening of 30th July 1829 when "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; up this way they came and found Rizzio in that little room, pulled him out, and three rooms off there is a dark corner, where they murdered him. 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 around is broken and mouldering, and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony."

Louis Daguerre “The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel”, 1824

Louis Daguerre “The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel”, 1824

Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, where this image can be viewed

The pre-occupation with Mary Queen of Scots and Scottish history more generally are important factors in understanding the Scottish Symphony. As well her being in his thoughts when Mendelssohn wrote down the opening slow introduction, references to Mary are detectable in the slow movement and in the coda to the finale. And there are “battle sequences” in the finale which call to mind battles which Mendelssohn and Klingemann were certainly aware of as we know from a Klingemann poem that mentions the Battle of Killiecrankie of 1689 and the 1745 Jacobite uprising, and they cannot have passed through Glencoe without a passing thought for the massacre that took place there three years after Killiecrankie.

The slow introduction to the first movement, with its unusual scoring of woodwind and violas (the violins don’t appear until bar 17 – it is difficult to think of any other Classical or Romantic Symphony that holds back the upper strings for so long), suggests the “broken and mouldering” chapel of Holyrood, and the subdued mood continues at the opening of the Allegro un poco agitato with the long main theme given pianissimo on violins and clarinet; we have to wait until well into the Allegro before the force of the full orchestra is unleashed. Rather than a second subject in the relative major, Mendelssohn chooses a plaintive theme in the dominant key of E minor which extends the sombre mood still further. A moment of radiance occurs at the end of the development section when the cellos are given centre stage with a counter-melody that carries over into the return of the main theme, and the surprises continue in the recapitulation with a ferocious storm-sequence that depicts more vividly than any of the music in the Hebrides Overture what it feels like to be in a storm-tossed boat – something which Mendelssohn had experienced first-hand when he sailed into the arms of an Atlantic swell on his visit to the islands of Staffa and Iona. The opening introduction returns at the end of the movement and, as in his E minor Violin Concerto, Mendelssohn gives the audience no opportunity to cough and fidget between movements by carrying on into the Vivace non troppo without a break.

This scherzo movement has been likened to a gathering of highlanders making merry, and it has also been suggested that the main theme is reminiscent of the Scottish folk-tune Charlie is my darling, but Roger Fiske in his book “Scotland in Music” is not convinced by either theory and thinks of it as “outdoor music” and he can “imagine the main theme coming into the composer’s mind as their horse jogged along in the sun by Loch Tay”.

Mendelssohn sketch of Loch Tay, 5 August 1829, and the same image (with the cottages long gone!) photographed in 2013

Mendelssohn's sketch of Loch Tay

Loch Tay 5 August 1829.  Bodleian sketchbook. 24r

Loch Tay

The third movement is the beautiful Adagio which has been described as a lament for Mary Queen of Scots. The words of the prayer, Ave Maria, gratia plena (Hail, Mary, full of grace), fit almost perfectly under the first 24 bars of the melody of the Adagio, although the underlay at the word "mulieribus" is a bit forced, as can be seen from the excerpt below. One wonders whether Mendelssohn, if he was thinking of either when he wrote this movement, had in mind Mary the Mother of Jesus, or Mary Queen of Scots, or whether he was thinking of Ellen Douglas singing the Ave Maria in Scott’s The Lady of the Lake

Mendelssohn Symphony No 3 (Scottish), opening theme of third movement Adagio

Mendelssohn Symphony No 3 - 3rd movement, Adagio

The Finale is marked Allegro Guerriero – fast and warlike – and the music strongly suggests a battle, with its restless syncopations which dominate the movement and the underlying four-square tread of the lower instruments which could be soldiers on a quick march. The frenetic fugal passages conjure up the chaos of combat and the falling two-note figure which occurs later in the movement is a device which depicts women bewailing the death of their men in battle.

At the end of the movement the music comes to a virtual stop and is followed by a curious coda which presents a theme which sounds new, although it is related to the very opening theme of the Symphony. The orchestration is unusual and unlike anything that Mendelssohn did before or after. The majestic melody begins with the lower strings and the woodwind doubling each other at the bottom of their register before it gradually rises up as if escaping the mists with which Mendelssohn and Klingemann (who referred to “mighty mountains sticking up to their knees in the clouds, and looked out again from the top”) had become so familiar in the Highlands. The Symphony ends in triumph with horns blazing above the full orchestra. But one of the most significant points about this mysterious coda is the reference, once more, to Mary. In 1830, Mendelssohn published his setting of the Ave Maria for eight-part choir and organ. After an introductory unison incantation of “Ave”, a solo tenor begins the prayer as follows:

Mendelssohn Ave Maria Op 23 No 2

Mendelssohn Ave Maria Op 23 No 2

The words Ave Maria (“Hail, Mary”) are set to exactly the same notes, in the same key and time signature as those that begin the coda of the Scottish Symphony. The similarity cannot be coincidental, and it is more than likely that Mendelssohn had Mary Queen of Scots as much in mind at the end of the symphony as he had at the opening.

At the end of his Scottish journey, Mendelssohn wrote a poignant letter home to Berlin from Glasgow on 15 August 1829. There is something in it which suggests an awareness that he might never again have such a carefree time in his life, away from the immediate pressures of composing, performing or being the focus of attention in social circles, and it underlines the importance of the Scottish experience to the young composer who, although of course he cannot have known it, was already more than half-way through his all-too-short life:

"This, then, is the end of our Highland journey and the last of our joint letters. We’ve been happy together roaming round the country as gaily as if storm and rain had not existed. But they did exist. We had weather to make trees and rocks crash, and the newspapers have been full of its awfulness… I hardly know how to describe the wretched, comfortless solitude of the countryside. We wandered for ten days without meeting a single other traveller. What look like towns on the map or at least like villages turn out to be just a few sheds huddled together, with just a single hole for door, window and chimney which has to serve for the entrances and exits of men, beasts, light and smoke. To any question the only answer you get is a dry “No!”. Whisky is the only drink. There are no churches, no streets, no gardens. The rooms are pitch-dark in broad daylight. Children and hens lie in the same straw. Many of the huts have no roof and crumbling walls, and many houses have been destroyed by fire… It’s no wonder the Highlands have been called melancholy. But we two have been happy enough, laughing, rhyming, sketching, growling at each other and at the world…eating everything eatable and sleeping for twelve hours every night. We won’t forget it as long as we live."

© Stephen Carpenter 2024

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