Mendelssohn String Symphony No. 1 in C major

performed by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta under Lev Markiz, or below by the Northern Chamber Orchestra under Nicholas Ward


I’d originally intended to do two of Mendy’s actual numbered symphonies this week, and then put on the breaks when I realized they were really quite substantial, significant works. So I put a half-written article on the backburner, moved Tuesday’s post to later in the week and decided we’ll do a bit of his juvenilia for this week as a lead-in to the first (numbered) symphony. Speaking of juvenile, the above image in the YouTube video is the same as the cover image for this and the rest of this week’s string symphony posts, and yes, the Young Felix looks like an awkward, frustrated pre-teen girl, but he was, as we shall see, a fabulous musical mind.

Mendelssohn is (yet another) one of those composers who I have yet to really sink my teeth into and appreciate. We’ve done only his violin concerto so far, and the Midsummer Night’s Dream sort of (more a concert review article), and his Hebrides overture, but the little genius wrote tons of music for strings, orchestra, piano, and I need to get around to appreciating some of it.

I’ll be perfectly honest: the above-referenced recording I purchased because it was far cheaper than the rest and got (at least) some decent reviews. I heard nice things about Goodman’s recording, but I’m not willing to pay for it yet. We’ll see.

The string symphonies were written between 1821 and 1823, when little Felix was 12-14 years old. They’re written for string orchestra (strings only, except for no. 11, which has some percussion), and are mostly in three movements, “with the exceptions of nos. 7, 8 and 9, which are in four movements, no. 10 which is in one movement, and no. 11 which is in five movements,” says Wiki, citing Hyperion’s booklet. What the Wiki article about these pieces doesn’t say that the article on the composer does is this:

As an adolescent, his works were often performed at home with a private orchestra for the associates of his wealthy parents amongst the intellectual elite of Berlin.[20] Between the ages of 12 and 14, Mendelssohn wrote 12 string symphonies for such concerts. These works were ignored for over a century, but are now recorded and occasionally played in concerts.

The booklet for the albums also gives some (precious little) detail about the works. Essentially, we can think of these works the same way we think of Haydn’s earliest works. If you haven’t listened to the latest episode of the podcast with Haydn expert Mike McCaffrey, go do that. We talk about the significance of Haydn’s earliest works, their (un)suitability to the concert hall, and why, even as seemingly uneventful as they may be, they’re incredibly significant to the Haydn scholar, and to the development of music in general, especially when speaking of the symphony and the string quartet.

We’ll see a similar thing here. While Haydn’s earliest works, as I discussed with Mr. McCaffrey, were very ad hoc, almost throwaway time fillers to be played at some buffet line for a fancy prince (and therefore not concert music), Mendelssohn is writing at a time when the concert hall was already well (or at least more) established. So while these works might not get the attention we’d give many of his other famous works, they help us learn about the composer and see where he was from the very beginning, what the young talent was like early on (and, as discussed yesterday, for really his entire career).

String symphony number one is pretty straightforward (as are most of these, I guess), and as Hyperion also points out, while the first movement is pretty scale-driven, the one thing I think you’ll notice if you’ve listened to any of Mendy’s music in the past is counterpoint! There’s lots of it, and while the up-and-down in violins against the down-and-up somewhere else for, you know, an entire (albeit rather small) symphony might seem a bit tiresome, these works are full of color and youthfulness and a kind of effortless genius.

My biggest question in listening to them is, ‘what was Mendelssohn’s compositional problem?’ If he comes out of the gate, leading with a dozen string symphonies of this quality, where does his trajectory go? That might sound like ‘how could he improve?’ but it isn’t. He obviously matured, but he’s clearly starting with an incredible talent for music, the kind of thing that any other composer might have made their career on if they’d been twelve independent symphonies stretched out over ten years instead of two.

Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but let’s just listen.

The first movement or (or the entire symphony, or all of the symphonies are) full of a youthful vigor and vibrance. It’s like a snowball, a cascading effect of nonstop counterpoint. The opening is vivacious enough, the structure of the work clear enough that we (or I think I) hear the beginning of the exposition repeat. There’s a clarity, a straightforwardness to the movement that gives an air of simplicity to it. There are moments when the upper strings drop away to give cello and basses some time to sound, changing the timbre from a mass of busy strings to something more meaty in tone, if just briefly.

The andante is much cooler, more laid back, and not so densely contrapuntal, at least at the beginning. This is less like weaving a thick contrapuntal fabric and more like a very large string quartet, more intimate, broad, and spacious. There’s a freer passage that makes use of pizzicato under the long, lyrical lines. It’s a bit of a breather from the more rigorous first movement, thankfully.

The final movement begins with a somewhat surprising roar on a resonant open string, which instantly gives way to a bouncy, breathtaking wind-in-your-hair try-to-keep-up playful theme in the upper strings with runs up, then down, like a game of tag of some kind; rinse and repeat. There’s a cute development-like section (seems quite a small movement for an actual sonata form…?) and ends quickly and crisply.

What I have found effective and even a bit breathtaking about these works after listening at least somewhat closely to the first half dozen of them is that the line never breaks. Whether it’s the counterpoint that keeps coming or pizzicato supporting a lyrical violin line, there’s something buoyant about these symphonies, the energy (cliché, I know; how about tension or interest) level stays pretty high without getting exhausting or stale. I suppose part of this effectiveness lies in the fact that the entire first symphony is less than twelve minutes. It could be hard to pull that trick with a larger-scale work, but that is undoubtedly something the (still) young composer manages to do, as we shall see later this week. Stay tuned.

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