Mendelssohn String Symphony no. 2 in D major

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


So here’s the second of these dozen little symphonies.

I won’t have a ton to say about them, I don’t think, but an interesting comparison comes to mind. This second symphony, with its repeats and three movements, comes in at just over 10 minutes, at least for my recording. Who else comes to mind when thinking of a ten-minute symphony?

Papa Haydn. But let’s compare… Little Felix is 12 years old or something at this point, and Haydn was at least into his 40s or later before he started writing the symphonies that are played with any regularity in concert halls today (he was in his mid-50s when he wrote the Paris symphonies). But his earliest efforts pale in comparison to what the Little Genius Felix has done here.

Obvious differences are that Haydn used winds and continuo to beef out the sound of his band, which might have likely been playing out of doors and needed a sound that would carry better. Mendelssohn was also benefiting from all the development and progress that had been made in music up to that point, having existed later in the evolution of the symphony. But then again, Haydn invented the symphony, so it’s hard to compare.

The first movement of the D major string symphony is a fast-paced, brisk thing, with lots of 16th note runs and even a little bit of chromaticism. While the counterpoint is nice, like a dry champagne, it can still get to be too much after a while. That being said, there are some elements to the first movement that make it more fun, like the second subject of the movement, and some of the 16th-note runs or repeated notes that counter movement elsewhere. Like most of these (at least first few), the movements don’t really last long enough to have to start thinking about large-scale, long-term structure.

In welcome contrast to the liveliness of the first movement, we have the andante in B minor. While still contrapuntal in texture and approach, it’s a shadowy, dark, baroque-sounding movement that puts the bright crispness of the first into perspective. It’s by far the longest movement of the little symphony, at more than 40% of the work’s length, but its simple seriousness and solemn beauty are well executed.

The allegro, while in much the same spirit as the opening movement, is in 6/8, and at least for Markiz’s recording, at a nearly-breakneck but nonetheless breathtaking tempo. There are more obvious moments of humor here, some spots that clearly break up the contrapuntal tapestry and sort of rolling, never-ending flow of notes for a surprise effect, a small but sweet detail in a small but sweet symphony.

While I’m sure there’s plenty to learn from something even as simple as this work in areas of voice leading and counterpoint and harmony and all of that (all of which it seems the young Mendelssohn had mastered before he was a teen), I also see these works, in their generally light, appealing, pleasant nature, as pretty good background music. That might be a slight to them, but you can’t put Mahler or even Beethoven on in the background and be able to do anything else. Turn it down enough and you can’t hear half of the work because of its delicate volume, but turn it up and your dinner party will eventually be jarred by the realization that these Romantic-era composers had something emotional to say and demanded to be heard. Mendelssohn’s string symphonies, on the other hand, are a fine balance of both, engaging, clearly masterful music, while also being quite amenable for background listening, with an admitted lack of appreciation for their full value in the latter setting.

That’s it for now. Two more string symphonies this week.

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