Mendelssohn Symphony No. 1 in Cm, Op. 11,

performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado

So while the first three string symphonies this week might not have been riveting, life-changing works, or really anything I’d put on more than background music of some kind, they are an excellent primer for this first symphony. Unfortunately (or maybe not), we didn’t get around to the other nine (later) string symphonies before we jumped ahead to his first full-fledged effort, but we’ll get there eventually.

The work was completed on March 31, 1824, when Young Felix was still only 15 years old, but it wasn’t published until 1831, in his early twenties. The first performance was apparently a private gathering late in 1824 to honor his big sister’s 19th birthday, and the first public performance (the official premiere, I guess) was given on 1 February 1827 by the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, and the London premiere two years later, in 1829, performed by the dedicatee of the work, the Royal Philharmonic Society, conducted by the composer.

Wikipedia lists the four movements as follows:

  1. Allegro di molto (C minor, 4/4, sonata form. )
  2. Andante (E-flat major, 3/4, sonata form.)
  3. Menuetto: Allegro molto (C minor, 6/4, compound ternary form, with a trio firstly in A-flat major and later in C minor. Compared to the standard minuet & trio form, it is slightly different as there is an extra link to the main minuet after the binary-form trio section.)
  4. Allegro con fuoco (C minor, 4/4, sonata form, ending in C major. The primary theme of which bears a striking resemblance to the final movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s Symphony No. 40.)

The symphony begins stormily, as if we’ve suddenly been dropped into a storm in a slightly-too-small boat on the ocean. There’s no introduction, no lead-in, just bam, music. The first theme sounds similar to the kind of heavy-stringed content from the string symphonies, focused, tight, dense motion, but with more punch and purpose with a whole orchestra. This stormy first theme leads into the far more serene second theme, a pleasant, more spacious theme. The transitional material between these is nice and tense, and doesn’t give anything away. The second theme has a small coda-type section of its own that wraps up the exposition, and what’s pretty classical-era to me about this is that Young Mendy gives us a full cadence and solid end to the section before the repeat, a clean, delineated finish before we rinse and repeat. In contrast with the string symphonies, obviously, our exposition nears three minutes, not just a few seconds. Obviously… this first movement alone is as long as or longer than any of the three string symphonies we discussed. The string symphonies start to really build out at around no. 5 or 6, so it’s not like the composer went from what we heard this week to a half-hour symphony. Some of his string symphonies equal the length of this work, but just a listen to the exposition shows us that Mendelssohn was by then already a master of composition.

That clean finish that sent us back to the beginning now throws us into the development, where we get to enjoy more of the composer’s talents and drop our jaws at his skills. What I think we see here (again, it’s not quite the most fair of comparisons since this work is likely more akin to the later string symphonies, but still) that the counterpoint is not just for music’s sake, like one of those boxes that closes itself, but it propels the piece forward, tells a story. We have development and contrast and narrative, and tumult and triumph and a richness of expression. This is a (more) mature work.

And surprise, surprise, we have another sonata-form movement in the andante. That doesn’t necessarily make it more epic. It’s still not a huge movement, but it’s a more robust structure than an ABA form or something. Oh, it’s also extremely beautiful. If the first movement was on a stormy sea, then the skies have cleared and we’re enjoying a sunset in perfect peace, with a starry sky overhead. Woodwinds here are beautiful, flute and clarinet and all the rest adding wonderful color to the movement. It has its own contrasts, and some heavier moments, but it’s sweeping and soothing in a simple but not plain way.

The Cm minuet brings me back to the mental space of the first movement, but in triple meter, and with slightly less crunch. It’s in 6/4, which isn’t a terribly important fact, except that it looks more interesting on paper. Wikipedia makes mention of the binary form trio section with a little minuet tidbit in there. The A-flat major trio is really soothing, but by the return of the minuet, I’m starting to think that just maybe he’s over-salted (i.e. over-counterpointed) the piece again. What will the finale bring us?

First, it brings us Mozart. Listen to this:

That’s the finale of Mozart’s 40th, and now to the finale of the Mendelssohn. That’s a link to the beginning of the finale, from the same video at the top of the article, the final movement starting at around 24:05.

It’s beyond a similarity, and it interests me, but not enough to postulate as to why he may have done so. Homage? Shortcut? Plagiarism (gasp!)? In any case, the energy is high enough for this finale, crisp crunchy strings, and contrast, that I don’t mind the high-density (plenty of fiber!) string texture all over again. It’s commanding, and there are some wonderful undercurrents that show up in the bass, and spread out to the whole orchestra. Pizzicato strings mark the end of an important section, again dealing with sonata form, and introduce a clarinet solo. This might be the most inventive, wide-ranging movement of the whole symphony, for the contrasts it gives us. In the Abbado recording, you hear a rocking chair getting its own (un-scored) solo. Maybe it’s a chair somewhere, or Abbado’s podium, but there’s a very audible creaking in the latter part of the movement. In any case, we get this sudden, surprising turn of events at a coda that suddenly opens the curtains and finishes in a triumphant, bright, celebratory C major.

This symphony might not be one I’ll dig up regularly and go listen to, but it doesn’t mean I don’t really enjoy it. It’s quite compact, tight, rigorous, a nice work, one which the composer was quite proud of throughout his entire life, and encouraged performances of over almost all of his other works. He suppressed or disowned (or whatever) his string symphonies and was proud enough of the first to count it as his first, and well he should be, as a fifteen-year-old composer. Where else is there for him to go after having written a work like this before he could have even legally driven, had that been a thing?

We’ll have to find out later. In the meantime, for next week’s symphonies, we’ll be jumping ahead a few decades, sadly skipping over Schumann, whose symphonies (all except the second) I really need to revisit and do justice to in new articles. He’d be next in the chronology, but we’re going to bypass the revisits for now and move on to new things. See you next week.



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