Although I will assert that no one wears a forehead better than he, Felix Mendelssohn’s music has always left me rather lukewarm. This predicament became clear a few years ago, when, after singing both parts of his oratorio Elijah, my one conclusion was that within the first syllable of Mendelssohn is “Meh”. (Which, in hindsight, is insane. Three words, soprano-sung: “Hear ye, Israel!”)
“Meh”, indeed. Until recently, when over the glistening waves of Pandora a familiar theme was heard and I thought “I LOVE this piece!” A quick glance at the screen told me it was none other than the handiwork of Mendelssohn- the Allegro vivace movement of his Symphony No. 4 Op. 90 “Italian”.
In all honesty, how could I hold up the mission we hold so dear here at Sibling Revelry (in case you haven’t memorized it, we strive to make the wide world of classical music approachable and enjoyable for all mankind) while disdaining a composer who is generally quite popular? It was time that I learned something from my own blog.
Felix spent the better part of 1830-1831 in Italy, indulging his admiration of Italian art and culture and honing his skills as an amateur watercolorist. Unfortunately, his impressions of Italian music were quite opposite. “I have not heard a single note worth remembering”, he lamented in letters to relatives and friends. The knife was further twisted upon discovering that the orchestras of Rome were “unbelievably bad”. As homage to the country he had come to hold dear- and perhaps to compensate for its one flaw- Mendelssohn began writing his fourth symphony in Italy in 1832 and completed it in Berlin in 1833. He was never fully satisfied with it, however (even refusing to have it performed in Germany) and gave it at least two revisions: one in 1837, and again in 1847, shortly before his death at the tender age of 38. It was finally published four years later by one of Mendelssohn’s teachers, Czech pianist Ignaz Moscheles.
The Allegro vivace is just that: fast and lively. Some musicologists say it was inspired by Felix’s time in Venice. Metered in 6/8, it is bright, flowing and nicely textured. I particularly like the little “chat” between the strings’ line and that of the woodwinds’/brass. You may very well recognize the opening theme, as I did on that day when the “Meh” was taken out of “Mendelssohn”!
I’ve chosen three performances to contemplate. The first is the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein and his usual exuberance. The second performance is the Orchestra of Aix, chosen because of the glaring difference in tempo. The third is a live performance by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, conducted by Paavo Järvi. I hope you’ll enjoy this musical painting very much!
“This is Italy! And now has begun what I have always thought… to be the supreme joy in life. And I am loving it. Today was so rich that now, in the evening, I must collect myself a little, and so I am writing to you to thank you, dear parents, for having given me all this happiness.” ~Felix Mendelssohn in a letter from Venice to his father Abraham, October 10th 1830