Skip to content
BSO, Pops, Tanglewood, and Symphony Hall Logos

Symphony No. 3, Scottish

"The chapel beside it has lost its roof and is overgrown with grass and ivy, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything there is ruined, decayed and open to the clear sky. I believe that I have found there today the beginning of my Scotch Symphony." — Felix Mendelssohn

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809, and died in Leipzig, Saxony, on November 4, 1847. He completed this symphony—which, not counting the string symphonies he wrote as a boy, is actually his fifth and last—on January 20, 1842, though his first idea for it goes back to the summer of 1829. Though Mendelssohn always referred to this in correspondence and conversation as his “Scotch Symphony,” he does not use that title anywhere on the score. He conducted the first performance on March 3, 1842, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. He then made a few revisions, and the work was played in its final form for the first time just two weeks later under the direction of Karl Bach, conductor at the Leipzig Opera. The dedication is to “H.M. Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland.”

Mendelssohn is the most astonishing of all the composing prodigies. Mozart was to go much farther, but as a teenager not even he surpasses or often equals Mendelssohn in assurance and certainly not in individuality. To think of the young Mendelssohn is to think first of all of the Octet for Strings, written 1825, the year he turned sixteen, and of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, the work of a boy of seventeen. He had found a voice unmistakably his own and he used it with the confidence of a seasoned professional. In a way he was just that. By the time of the Octet, he had seen, heard, read a lot. He had composed a lot, too.

In 1829 the 20-year-old Mendelssohn made his first visit to England, the country where he became more appreciated, more adored, than in any other. He conducted his Symphony No. 1 with the London Philharmonic, played Weber’s Konzertstück and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with that orchestra (creating a sensation because he did it from memory), gave a piano recital, and capped his stay with a benefit concert for Silesian flood victims, for which he assembled an all-star cast including the sopranos Maria Malibran and Henriette Sontag, the pianist Ignaz Moscheles, and the flutist Louis Drouet. Not to give a false impression of Mendelssohn’s London stay, this time he did not just work but had fun as well.

In mid-July he was ready for a vacation, and so, with Karl Klingemann, a friend from Berlin now posted in London as Secretary to the Hanoverian Legation, he set out for Scotland. He was both a diligent and a gifted letterwriter, as was Klingemann, which means we have a remarkably complete picture of their journey to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth, Inverness, Loch Lomond, and the Hebrides islands of Iona, Mull, and Staffa. They made a detour to Abbotsford to visit the then-worshipped novelist Sir Walter Scott and were disappointed to find him grouchy, distracted, and unwilling to rise beyond small talk. They were good-humored about bad food (sometimes no food), uncomfortable inns, and taciturn Scots (“To all questions you get a dry ‘no’”), but Mendelssohn hated, absolutely hated, bagpipes and anything to do with folk music.

On August 7, after his visit to Staffa and Fingal’s Cave, he jotted down the opening of his Hebrides Overture. A week before, on July 30, he had written home:

In darkening twilight today, we went to the Palace [of Holyrood] where Queen Mary lived and loved. There is a little room to be seen there with a spiral staircase at its door. That is where they went up and found Rizzio in the room, dragged him out, and three chambers away there is a dark corner where they murdered him. The chapel beside it has lost its roof and is overgrown with grass and ivy, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything there is ruined, decayed and open to the clear sky. I believe that I have found there today the beginning of my Scotch Symphony.

And for himself he wrote down sixteen bars of music, the opening, still in preliminary form, of this score.

But it was years before either of his musical mementos from Scotland reached final form. The Hebrides Overture went through three stages, being first written in 1829 with the name of Die einsame Insel (“The Desert Island”), then revised in December 1830 and again in June 1832. Mendelssohn did not even return to his plan for a Scotch Symphony until 1841. He wrote from Rome in March 1831 that he could not “find his way back into the Scottish fog mood,” and the matter receded farther and farther from the forefront of his mind. Over the next ten years he wrote the Reformation and Italian symphonies, as well as the Hymn of Praise (on the invention of printing), two piano concertos, four books of Songs Without Words, the oratorio Saint Paul, four string quartets, the Piano Trio No. 1, and much besides.

He had traveled, become music director first at Düsseldorf and then at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, married Cécile Jeanrenaud, had given the first performance of Schubert’s Great C major symphony, and had just been appointed director of the music division of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. In 1842, on his seventh visit to England, he made two new friends, enthusiastic and competent performers of his songs and chamber music, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and Her Majesty graciously consented to accept the dedication of the Scotch Symphony.

The score is prefaced by a note asking that the movements not be separated by the customary pauses, and the composer goes on to suggest that their sequence be indicated in the program as follows:

Introduction and Allegro agitato—Scherzo assai vivace—
Adagio cantabile—Allegro guerriero and Finale maestoso.

The markings in Mendelssohn’s preface and in the music itself, however, do not exactly correspond to this.

The introduction begins solemnly. Mendelssohn has refined his 1829 sketch, coming up with a more interesting rhythm in the first measure and a less flaccid turn of melody a little later. This hymnlike opening gives way to an impassioned recitation for the violins, and it is from this passage that the rest of the Andante takes its cue. The music subsides into silence, and after a moment the Allegro begins, its agitato quality set into higher relief by the pianissimo that Mendelssohn maintains through twenty-one measures. The Scotch is very much a pianissimo symphony. The scoring tends to be dense and dark in a manner that we, certain of the symphony’s title, are much inclined to interpret as Northern and peaty. At the first fortissimo, the tempo is pushed up to Assai animato, which is in fact the base speed for the remainder of the movement.

As always, Mendelssohn handles the entrance into the recapitulation captivatingly: as the moment of return approaches, cellos start to sing a new melody in notes much slower than the skipping staccato eighths in the strings and woodwinds, set in delicate piano against the surrounding pianissimo, and when the first theme returns, it is as a counterpoint against the continuing cello song. The coda brings one of those diminished-seventh-chord tempests that Romantic composers were so fond of. Once again the music subsides—very beautifully—and a breath of the introduction brings the first movement to a close.

The scherzo emerges from this with buzzing sixteenth-notes and distant horn calls (on all sorts of instruments). In spite of Mendelssohn’s irritations in the summer of 1829, the flavor of the tunes is distinctly Scots. The Adagio alternates a sentiment-drenched melody with stern episodes of march character. The fiercely energetic fourth movement again seems very Scots indeed, and every bit as macho and athletic as Mendelssohn’s guerriero promises. He invents yet another of his magical pianissimos, this time to emerge into a noble song, scored in surprisingly dark and muted hues for such a peroration: he remarks somewhere that it should suggest a men’s chorus. The composer Robert Schumann caught the cousinage of this hymn to the one that begins the symphony and remarked: “We consider it most poetic; it is like an evening corresponding to a lovely morning.”

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1976 to 1979, and after that of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. Oxford University Press has published three compilations of his program notes, devoted to symphonies, concertos, and the great works for chorus and orchestra.

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony was given by Georg Henschel in January 1883.