Reflections on Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4
Updated: Feb 2
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A major, nicknamed “Italian,” holds a special place in my heart. Not only is it a gorgeous piece to hear and to play, but I have a few specific memories attached to that symphony that gave me great musical inspiration and education.
Composer Felix Mendelssohn has been on my mind quite a bit lately. I am in my final year of my Music Performance degree, and last semester my string quartet worked on Mendelssohn’s Opus 44 No. 3 Quartet. I also gave an end-of-semester presentation on the life and works of Mendelssohn. So before I dive into my personal experiences and memories attached to his fourth symphony, let me give you a little background on Felix Mendelssohn and this particular composition.
In Hamburg Germany in the year 1809, Felix was born to parents Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn. Little Felix had three siblings and he and his older sister, Fanny, had a special bond throughout their life. They both learned piano together at a young age under the tutelage of their mother before going on to study piano, composition, and for Felix, violin, with more serious instructors. Felix established himself very early on as a musical prodigy, both in performance and in composition. He made his public debut at the age of nine in Berlin and composed 5 operas, 11 symphonies for string orchestra, and some concerti, sonatas, and fugues during his childhood.
During his time in music school, Felix Mendelssohn became interested in conducting, and in 1839 he conducted a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. This concert sparked a renewed interest in the musical work of Johann Sebastian Bach, who, despite his being a household name today, was not well known during his lifetime nor in the century after. It is no stretch to say that without Mendlessohn, Bach’s music may very well have stayed in the shadows of history.
Now, onto the piece that is the subject of this blog post: Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A major. He began to compose this Symphony in 1830, during a ten month trip to Italy. While traveling throughout the country, Mendelssohn made a record of his trip through a series of paintings, sketches, and of course his fourth symphony. (Pictured: Mendelssohn's watercolor rendition of Florence, Italy.)
He finalized the musical work in 1833 and conducted the premiere himself the same year. The symphony has the standard four movements, beginning with a brilliant movement depicting the beautiful, blue, expansive Italian sky. The second movement is Andante con moto, inspired by the remarkable processions Mendelssohn had observed in Rome, which is followed by a lovely minuet and trio movement. The final movement of this work is another dance movement, the Neapolitan saltarello, and it is an unrelenting, high-energy movement in the minor key.
I have had two opportunities to play this wonderful symphony, the first of which was in high school. The spring of my freshman year, I auditioned for and was accepted into the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) Youth Fellowship Program, which is a full-scholarship training program for serious young musicians in the DC area. Fun fact: the NSO Youth Fellowship Program is where I met our fabulous StringTime Director, Lourdes de la Peña! One of the aspects of this program that I loved the most was the side-by-side rehearsal opportunities with the National Symphony. As the students, we would practice our parts very diligently so as to be well-prepared for the rehearsal where we would sit in as a part of the professional orchestra under a great maestro. This particular side-by-side rehearsal was in June at the end of my 11th grade year, and the renowned conductor Christoph Eschenbach was leading the orchestra into the musical Italian landscape that Mendlessohn had created nearly two centuries earlier. It was so incredible and inspiring to experience the feeling of playing such great music alongside seasoned professionals at such a young age.
The other memory I mentioned attached to Mendlessohn’s “Italian” Symphony occurred just last year, during my junior year - but of college this time! I attend the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University in Macon, GA, and last year was the inaugural year of a partnership between the Center for Strings and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO), called the Macon-Mercer Symphony Orchestra. For four concerts a year, ASO winds and brass members travel an hour south of Atlanta to join the string students from the McDuffie Center to form a full symphony. It was our second concert of the season, and I was chosen to be the concertmaster for the rehearsals. For the concert, though, the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, David Kim, came to town and I had the privilege of sitting by him for the concert! Mr. Kim has been concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra for over 20 years, and by sitting by him for the dress rehearsal and concert, I was able to absorb so much about what it takes to be a great concertmaster.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about some of my inspiring musical memories around playing and performing Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A major, and if you are not familiar with the piece, I hope you will take the time to give it a listen - you will not be disappointed!