Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 “Scottish”

by Max Derrickson

Felix Mendelssohn     (born Hamburg,Germany, 1809; died Leipzig,Germany, 1847)

Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 “Scottish”

  1. Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato
  2. Vivace non troppo
  3. Adagio
  4. Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai


When Felix Mendelssohn reached the age of 20, his father urged him to undertake one last piece of training to complete his formal education – a three-year journey through Europe.  Mendelssohn had already achieved remarkable successes as a composer, pianist, and conductor, but this was an irresistible proposal, and one that brought promise of nurturing his artistic endeavors and further establishing his reputation as a musician.  This was not an uncommon type of endeavor for children of wealthy families in the 19th Century, and Mendelssohn was indeed from wealthy stock – and not only wealthy, but of intellectual giants.  Moses Mendelssohn, Felix’s grandfather, was a leading Enlightenment philosopher.  Many cities inEurope held the Mendelssohn name in high regard, and in a sense, young Felix had an open invitation to the World.  He readily accepted.

Beginning in April 1829, Mendelssohn headed out through England and Scotland, back via the major cities of Germany, and then finished his Grand Tour in Hungary and Italy.   [. . .]

Like so many others before and since, Mendelssohn was deeply moved byScotland– its haunted, misty landscapes, its people and history – the stuff of Romantic legend.  A prodigious correspondent, Mendelssohn chronicled his travels in delightful letters to his family and ofHolyrood Palace,Scotland, he wrote: “In the evening twilight we went today to the place where Queen Mary lived and loved; . . . Everything is broken and mouldered [in the chapel close by] and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.”  It may have inspired the beginnings of his Scottish Symphony, but the core of the piece would need to wait years to be written.  Soon after Scotland Mendelssohn arrived inItalyand the sunny luxuriousness of that country effectually moved his Scottish romance to the side.  New obligations, performing, conducting, other compositions and teaching soon championed his time, such that Mendelssohn would not finish his Scottish Symphony for another ten years.  In truth, it may have been for the better, for when the composer renewed his Scottish ruminations and premiered it in 1842, he was a more mature composer, and the Symphony represents Mendelssohn’s highest achievement in the symphonic genre.

Mendelssohn’s music generally is, in essence, neo-Classical with a Romantic’s sentiment.  His heroes were Handel, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.    [. . .]

Mendelssohn specified that the four movements be played without a break, but typically orchestras allow for slight pauses.  The composer’s reasoning for this is heard immediately in the opening.  We hear a brooding theme, reedy and somber, and from this emerges the thematic kernels for the rest of the Symphony – a sense for the flow of its thematic metamorphosis dictates Mendelssohn’s one-continuous-movement idea.      [. . .]

The finale then breaks forth from this melancholic mood with intense vigor, light on its feet but almost warlike.      [. . .]        Far from the usual bombastic finale of a typical symphony, Mendelssohn leaves us with his own impression ofScotland, that of being deeply moved and glad for the visit.