Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, Scottish
Notes by TŌN flutist Rebecca Tutunick
The Grand Tour
As was expected of a cultured, wealthy man in the early 19th century, Felix Mendelssohn, at age 20, embarked on a Grand Tour, departing his family home in Berlin for what would be a three-year expedition across various countries. With his family friend Karl Klingemann, Mendelssohn started his Grand Tour with a three-week walking tour of Scotland, beginning in Edinburgh. In a letter to his family, Mendelssohn noted, “We went, in the deep twilight, to the Palace of Holyrood, where Queen Mary lived and loved. There’s a little room to be seen there, with a winding staircase leading up to it. This the murderers ascended, and finding Rizzio, drew him out. Three chambers away is a small corner where they killed him. Everything around is broken and moldering, and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found today in the old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.” Enclosed within the envelope was a scrap of paper with what would become his symphony’s opening theme.
A 13 Year Journey
Over the next 13 years, Mendelssohn set aside and returned to his work on the Scottish Symphony several times, until eventually completing the symphony while in Berlin, in 1842. Though it was his fifth, and final symphony, it was his third to become published, so it became widely known as Symphony No. 3. It was first performed in Leipzig in 1842 under Mendelssohn’s own baton, and then brought to London to an audience that included Queen Victoria, to whom the symphony became dedicated.
The symphony is played in four interconnected movements. It begins with a rather somber, yet grand, opening theme, followed by a slightly more agitated idea in the violins. The two ideas conversate and evolve, in a beautiful, overlapping texture. The movement develops to bring plenty of drama and tension, as well as captivating melodies and thematic progression. The influence of Scotland is very clearly heard in the burbling, lighthearted second movement. Mendelssohn illustrates his deft use of featherlight magic, and inspires ideas of folk dance. The Adagio follows, interlacing a sweet, charming melody with a darker counterpart, evoking the conflict between love and fate. This movement has been described as a lament for Mary Queen of Scots. The fourth movement starts fiercely, immediately suggesting impending battle. The heroism and chaos of combat is conveyed, until a new, majestic theme prevails in the coda.