Mendelssohn Symphony no. 3 in Am, op. 56 ‘Scottish’

performed by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly

or (very) alternatively, here by Klemperer and the Philharmonia, which I’ll talk about below

“In the deep twilight we went today to the palace were Queen Mary lived and loved…The chapel below is now roofless. Grass and ivy thrive there and at the broken altar where Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything is ruined, decayed, and the clear heavens pour in. I think I have found there the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.”

(cover image by Sylvain Guiheneuc)

I can’t believe it’s been four months (to the day) that I posted an article about a symphony. The last one was Simpson’s third on May 18, the last installment in the English Symphony series. And here we are with something Scottish, sort of. We have a small little interim week of composers we haven’t seen in a very long time, to get back into symphonic works before we begin another enormous series next week, one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. Before the octet this past weekend, we hadn’t seen Mendelssohn in ages, and I’ve been wanting to write about this symphony for almost as long. Also heard it live recently, so here we are.

Oh, what clarity or confusion a (sub)title to a work can bring. In this case, at least, it was the composer’s trip to Scotland at 20 that inspired him to begin writing the work, in fact the same trip from which he got the inspiration for his Hebrides overture, and we can hear some of the same mystery and magic in this work that we do in that one. There are some Scottish-sounding themes, for sure, but this isn’t Riverdance. But Wiki does tell us that “It is debatable whether [Mendelssohn] intended the finished work to be considered ‘Scottish’.”

While The Young Prodigy began work on the piece in 1829, it wasn’t until he’d worked on it for a few years, got stuck and set it aside that he picked it back up and finished it more than a decade later, being premiered by the Leipzig Gewandhaus on March 3, 1842.

As for that ‘Scottish’ name, he apparently never referred to it that way after discussing it with his family, and it wasn’t until the composer died that the ‘Scottish’ origins of the piece came to light. Continuing the same thought mentioned above, Wikipedia says:

…audiences have found it hard not to hear the piece as evoking the wild Romantic landscapes of the north – even if such picturesque associations have caused audiences to overlook the many other musical qualities of this symphony.

If you want wonderful program music, try the Hebrides. If you want a symphony, with a four–movement form and some more heft, a beautiful journey through Mendelssohn’s outstanding craft, listen to this work. Something else notable about the piece (as with his violin concerto) is that the movements, while separate and individually marked, are to be played without pause, adding to the continuity of the work and eliminating the possibility for maddening between-movement-applause.

I recently (finally) had the opportunity to hear this work live, and it was a joy. In the maestro’s pre-concert lecture he always gives before the concert begins (not out in the lobby or anything, but after the lights have dimmed and everyone has found their seats, so it’s really kind of a part of the concert experience by now), Maestro Varga told us that the opening of the work is something like a prayer, quiet and solemn and peaceful. The entire first movement, really, is mostly melancholy, and the ‘Scottish’ association perhaps comes from the visual of craggy cliffsides, waves crashing on rocks, the whole scenery shrouded in fog and cloud. Once the ‘fog’ breaks and the first theme is introduced, there’s almost a ‘rocking’ lilt to the work, like a boat on the ocean as the coastline appears. The sound of the entire thing is absolutely magical and captivating, as one would imagine a twenty-year-old would feel visiting a landscape like Scotland for the first time.

After this first part of our magical journey, which ends in the quietest pizzicato, we jump right into one of the sunniest, most ‘Scottish’ sounding sections of the work. Strings and woodwinds come to life, and while this isn’t technically a scherzo, it serves that purpose. It has a bounce in its step and is full of excitement and buoyant energy, the rare glimpse of sunshine that we get in this landscape, and it indeed is short-lived, as the shortest movement in the symphony by far. Having listened to this recording many times, I still gasped silently to myself at the moments of frisson when hearing it live, like the horns that enter at pivotal moments in this movement. It’s just sheer beauty.

It, too, ends quietly, though, and we come to the third movement, the adagio. It’s much like the ‘prayer’ of the introduction to the first movement, but less melancholy. It’s peaceful, like a quiet moment at the end of a long day, just before sunset. It certainly has its climaxes, two major ones that split the work into thirds, but they don’t shatter the overall positive mood. While this is no jig or folk tune, the ‘Scottish’ sense may again come from the sense of majesty and awe you might get when visiting the place for the first time. I’ve never been to Scotland, but trekked around most of the British Isles (at around the age Mendelssohn was when he visited), and the scenery is truly breathtaking. I get the impression Mendelssohn was doing a lot of thinking, not just in the moment, but after he returned and was composing the work, about what the landscape represented and all it had seen.

The finale, says Maestro Varga, has some kind of association with ‘war’ either in the score or another marking or writing somewhere (a letter?). It’s not necessarily violent and cataclysmic (this is Mendelssohn, not Mahler or Bruckner), but it is one of the more turbulent, crunchy sections of the work, obviously suitable for a finale. After that comes to a head, there’s this sneaky slight of hand, where things slow down, and we shift gears at a clarinet line, actually all the woodwinds, over ethereal strings, and come to the real glorious, shining climax of the entire work, what Varga called “make love not war.” It’s absolutely breathtaking, triumphal, majestic, and just soaringly beautiful. It could be one of the greatest moments in all of music. I just love it.

And that brings us to a word about interpretations. The first reading I ever came to know of this work was Abbado and the London Symphony. I still love that recording (the whole cycle, really), but a few people I know who know a lot about music (actually just one person) swore there were far better recordings. I’m still not sure I agree, but after many comparisons, I feel that this work has many angles and different approaches that do it justice.

For one, Klemperer’s recording with the Philharmonia is what you might expect from him. It’s pristine, clear, but also a little bit heavy, with slower, more stately tempi, and the work can certainly be played effectively that way. I wasn’t entirely sold on the more deliberate tempo of the second movement, but the real disappointment was in the heavy slowness of the coda of the finale, which he did later rewrite in a new version since he hated this original so much.

The only other one I’ll mention in any detail is the one I reference above, with Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus. It’s Mendelssohn’s orchestra, and they play an early version of the piece (apparently with a few extra snippets that later got excised), but the main difference is the way Chailly does not downshift into a slow, epic gait for the finale. It’s been stated somewhere that that general tendency was due to a misprint that propagated the assumption it should be done this way. As Klemperer does it, it’s as if we’re closing out something like Beethoven’s ninth, and the epic, weighty finish is nice enough, but unsuitable to the work, in my opinion. Chailly, on the other hand, doesn’t put the pedal to the floor, but keeps the energy high as we soar to a grand but still light-footed climax. Abbado and Dohnanyi and Levine and all the others are somewhere in the middle, and to be honest, I can’t find an interpretation of this work I really can’t stand, as long as there’s no plodding along in the tempi.

So that’s that. You must listen to this work. It may not be Mahler 8 or 9 or Beethoven 9 or whatever, but as a 36-ish minute symphony, it’s one of the most compelling, unified works you could hear, the shortest more-than-half-an-hour of music that charms and pleases at every turn.

We may be seeing more of Chailly this week, so do stay tuned for two more symphony articles before we start a very big, very exciting series. Thank you for reading.

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