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Mendelssohn – a lightweight? That’s the accusation that’s been thrown at the great Romantic composer almost as long as his music has been played – kicked off to some degree by a jealous Richard Wagner, who couldn’t really accept that the creations of a composer born a Jew could truly embody the values of German music.
In fairness, Mendelssohn hardly helped his own case – he was a child prodigy to rival even Mozart, and unforgettable melodies seemed to simply flow out of him, in magically light, fairy music and evocative nature portraits. It’s hardly the vision of the tormented Romantic artist that many expect.
But Mendelssohn’s life wasn’t without its trauma – nor his music without its stormy drama. As is ably demonstrated in his five compelling symphonies, which together form one of the backbones of Royal Northern Sinfonia’s 2017/18 season. They’re full of charm, captivating tunes and glowing harmonies, certainly, but they’re quietly revolutionary in their own way, too. Even numbering them one to five is misleading: that ordering is down to the dates they were published, rather than the order in which Mendelssohn wrote them (which would give us 1, 5, 4, 2, 3). It’s far better to think of them as five highly individual masterpieces, each with its own distinctive theme and subject matter, and each with its own way of pushing forward what a symphony can express.
To make matters even more complicated, Mendelssohn’s First Symphony (4 Oct) wasn’t really his first. He finished it at the astonishing age of just 15 – the year before his brilliant Octet (19 Oct), now considered one of the greatest masterpieces in all chamber music. But what we call the First Symphony was preceded by no less than 12 others, which Mendelssohn wrote aged 12 to 14, and which we now term his ‘string symphonies’. The 15-year-old Mendelssohn looked on those as ‘student works’, though – and it’s significant that his First Symphony was the piece that launched his career on the international stage. It’s got its nods to Haydn and Mozart, certainly, but he injects the music with a joyfully uplifting, youthful vigour that guarantees it’s a lot of fun.
With his Second Symphony (15 Oct) however, Mendelssohn set out to out-do no less a figure than Beethoven – and pretty much succeeded. In what he called his Lobgesang or ‘Hymn of Praise’, he took the idea of a spectacular choral finale from the Ode to Joy of Beethoven’s much-loved Choral Symphony and went even further – into a fully fledged choral journey from darkness to light across nine spectacular movements, almost a mini-opera in its solo arias and dramatic scenes. It’s also here that Mendelssohn most explicitly links through to RNS’ other key theme this season: Bach & Sons (& Daughters). It was Mendelssohn himself who kicked off the 19th-century revival of Bach’s Baroque masterpieces, and he paid explicit homage to that earlier genius in his Lobgesang – weaving together his melodic lines in his captivating webs of counterpoint, and even quoting the great Lutheran hymn Now thank we all our God so beloved of Bach. It’s a truly remarkable work, one that breaks the mould of what a symphony can express – and one that’s rarely performed due to the enormous forces it requires.
For his Third Symphony (3 Nov), however, the German Mendelssohn looked to our own neighbours just north of the border for inspiration. He visited Scotland in 1829 – a trip that led to the famous Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), probably Mendelssohn’s most famous piece. A few years later, it also inspired a grander piece, the Scottish Symphony, full of brooding drama and sentimental songfulness, and an unmistakably Caledonian lilt to many of its tunes.
If his Third is full of stormy, sombre beauty, Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony, the Italian (1 Dec), is all blue skies and brilliant sunshine, leaping melodies, boundless rhythmic energy and irrepressible high spirits, as befits a piece inspired by a ten-month tour of Italy. There are moments of solemnity – not least the dusky slow movement that captures the religious devotion Mendelssohn witnessed in Rome. But he called it ‘the happiest piece I have ever written’, and it’s hard to disagree.
His Fifth Symphony, the Reformation (16 Feb), might have a more serious subject – no less than the founding of the Protestant church, written as it was to mark the 300th anniversary of Luther’s Augsburg Confession. But its mighty music – full of noble melodies and clever combining of hymn tunes – is no less uplifting for all that. And with its stirring themes and panoramic scope – well, it’s a wonder anyone would dare call it lightweight.