Felix Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony, the Italian, is so popular among performers and audiences alike that even the composer’s rivals gave it lofty praise. Hector Berlioz, who found Mendelssohn priggish and unlikable, called it “admirable, magnifique,” and thought it deserved a gold medal. Surprisingly, though, the composer himself was not satisfied with the symphony, one of his most famous creations.
Mendelssohn revised his Fourth Symphony after its first performance in London in 1833, introducing changes that distressed both his sister, Fanny, and his friend the composer, conductor and pianist Ignaz Moscheles. Furthermore, he remained dissatisfied, never conducted the work again and refused to publish it. When he died in 1847, he left behind detailed plans for further revisions to the first three movements. We have no clue why this perfectly poised symphony displeased him so.
A spirited work
Mendelssohn began work on it during an extended journey through Italy in 1830-31, referring to it as his “Italian symphony” and remarking that it was the most cheerful piece he had yet composed. The impetus to complete the piece came in the form of a resolution passed November 5, 1832, by the general membership of the London Philharmonic Society, “that Mr. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy be requested to compose a symphony, an overture and a vocal piece for the Society, for which he be offered the sum of one hundred guineas.” Mendelssohn conducted the first performance with the Philharmonic Society, London, on May 13, 1833, and the public success of the new symphony was immense.
Allegro vivace. That the new symphony made such a splash is no wonder. The first movement is music of architectural genius and the highest of spirits. It presents one captivating invention after another.
Andante con moto. The Andante is a chaste processional, perhaps a souvenir of one of the religious ceremonies that captured Mendelssohn’s imagination on his Italian journey. He invents utterly simple, utterly fresh sounds for his gently melancholic hymn, first oboe, bassoons and violas in octaves, then violins in octaves with the two flutes adding a decorative counterpoint. Fragments of the chant-like introductory measures and of the hymn reach us as though carried by a capricious wind, and so—most beautifully—the procession moves beyond our hearing.
Con moto moderato. Next, Mendelssohn gives us a minuet, at least a Romantic translation of minuet, delicate and surely quite un-Italian. Distant horns and bassoons color the gentle trio. The minuet returns and drifts to an enchanting, lightly sentimental close.
Saltarello: Presto. Last comes a rarity, a minor-key finale to a symphony in major. This movement is brilliant in every way, perfectly gauged for exhilaration to the end. A saltarello is literally a leaping dance, but the continuously running music that begins a minute or so into the movement is that of a tarantella, so named because it was believed that the only cure for the bite of a tarantula was to keep the victim in perpetual motion.
The tarantula, it seems, has been maligned: its bite, though painful, is harmless. At harvest-time, though, fiddlers would walk through the fields of Italy, hoping for therapeutic engagements, and who after all would wish to knock anything that provides musicians with gainful and reasonably honest employment?
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.