Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No.4 ‘Italian’
During the early 1830s, Felix Mendelssohn visited Italy, where he was inspired to write a number of his works, including the vivacious Fourth Symphony. Whilst in Italy, Mendelssohn travelled through Florence, Venice, Naples, Genoa, Rome and Milan, which showed him so many different sides to the beautiful country. In a letter from February 1830, Mendelssohn wrote to his sister Fanny that “I have once more begun to compose with fresh vigour, and the Italian symphony makes rapid progress; it will be the happiest piece I have ever written, especially the last movement.”
From his many letters from this period, it is accepted that the symphony, which is aptly nicknamed ‘Italian’, embodies the impressions that Italy had over Mendelssohn. From the landscape, architecture, art, the people and the food. Although Mendelssohn was never as pleased with this symphony as with the others, the Fourth remains a concert hall favourite across the globe today.
The opening movement bursts into action from the very start. The iconic main theme is first played on the violins and is then passed around the woodwind section. The vigorous repeated notes that build up the foundation accompaniment for the theme really drives the music forward. Mendelssohn writes a whole host of different themes for the listener to get lost in during this first movement alone. However, the opening theme returns later on in the music. Big bold sweeping lines oppose quiet and delicate sections that show the versatility of the orchestra. The sheer energy of this movement is sure to keep a smile on any listeners’ face!
Presented as a slow march, the restrained feeling of this movement builds some tension that was not at all present in the previous movement. Mendelssohn writes a noble main theme that is based on a scale. This is passed around the orchestra and through his clever orchestrations, is presented fairly by all voices. Although repetitive at times, the solid second movement serves its musical purpose.
Set as a traditional minuet and trio, the third movement brings us back into the classical era. The soft inflections from the woodwind and horns creates a warm timbre that the strings can sit neatly on top of. The horns are showcased during the start of the trio section as their soli introduces the chief theme played by the strings. After a reprise of the opening minuet theme, the movement concludes quietly.
Based on a Saltarello dance rhythm, the vigorous opening of the finale brings us back to the fiery character of the first movement. Mendelssohn utilises the percussion and brass to accompany the virtuosic strings and woodwind. Interestingly, Mendelssohn opens the movement in the major, but the symphony ends in the minor mode, which is not something you see often from this period. The bouncing rhythms are reinforced by the vivacious strings who really shape the character of this final movement. As a buoyant counterpoint section begins, Mendelssohn creates a quick perpetuum mobile that is colourful and stylish. As the coda begins only the violins remain as they play a whispering theme. One may believe the orchestra has actually hopped its way into exhaustion. The orchestra rebounds back into action with a massive crescendo that ends with a bold and bright ending.
Ⓒ Alex Burns