Friday, January 2, 2015

Felix Mendelssohn: Symphonies no. 1 & 5

No. 179 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


This week is the first of  a series of montages that fall under the thematic arc "Mad For Mendelssohn"where we will program many of Mendelssohn's mature symphonies, concertos and some of his more intimate works. Some of these mature works have already been programmed in the past, namely his Scottish and Italian symphonies, his early double concerto and his great Violin Concerto.

Aside from the youthful String Symphonies, Mendelssohn composed five "mature" symphonies, numbered approximately in the order that they were published, rather than the order in which they were composed. The order of actual composition is: 1, 5, 4, 2, 3. The placement of No. 3 in this sequence is problematic because he worked on it for over a decade, starting sketches for it soon after beginning work on No. 5, but completing it after both Nos. 5 and 4.

So, although the two symphonies we feature today appear to book-end Mendelssohn's symphonic output, they are in fact his first two "mature" symphonies.

The Symphony No. 1 in C minor for full-scale orchestra was written in 1824, when Mendelssohn was aged 15. This work is experimental, showing the influences of Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber. Mendelssohn conducted this symphony on his first visit to London in 1829, with the orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society.

For the third movement he substituted an orchestration of the Scherzo from his Octet. In this form the piece was a success, and laid the foundations of his British reputation. The performance in our montage - by the Calgary Philharmonic and Mario Bernardi - has the original scherzo - here is the "Octet" scherzo, as orchestrated by Mendelssohn - for the London performance:

A grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn was born into a prominent Jewish family. Although initially he was raised without religion, he was later baptised as a Reformed Christian. Althugh one would expect Mendelssohn to have had a "mixed allegiance" to the Jewish and Christian faiths, it is the latter that had Mendelssohn's devotion - Mendelssohn married Cécile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud, the daughter of a French Reformed Church clergyman, on 28 March 1837. During 1829 and 1830 Mendelssohn wrote his Symphony No. 5, known as the Reformation. It celebrated the 300th anniversary of the Lutheran Church. Mendelssohn remained dissatisfied with the work and did not allow publication of the score. It was not published until 1868, 21 years after the composer's death, which explains its numbering...

Apart from the pair of symphonies and conceti mentioned previously, I also have programmed some of Mendelssohnès concert and stage overtures in the past. To complete today's montage, I added a pair of overtures: Son and Stranger (or Return of the Roamer) was a comedy of mistaken identity written in honor of his parents' silver anniversary and unpublished during his lifetime. As for Ruy Blas, it is a romantic concert overture inspired by the Victor Hugo play.

I think you will love this music too.

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