Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 “Italian”

Felix Mendelssohn had the most fortunate upbringing that a composer could hope to have. On one hand, his parents furnished him with all of the advantages that wealth and social status could provide: a world-class musical education, a constant stream of interesting visitors across many and varied intellectual fields through their living-room, and teachers who were able to recognize and nurture his obvious talent. On the other hand, he dodged the bullet that hits so many identified “prodigies” in early stages of their careers: his parents had no interest in profiting off of his early aptitude, and he was in fact only second among the musical prodigies of the Mendelssohn children. His older sister Fanny was considered by the teachers that the two children shared to be more promising musician: when they both studied together at the Berliner Singakademie, their teacher Carl Zelter wrote of their father Abraham, “He has adorable children and his oldest daughter could give you something of Sebastian Bach. This child is really something special.”

Fanny’s “something special,” however, was suppressed to acceptable female levels in a joint effort between Abraham, who informed his daughter that music would be her brother’s profession but only ever her “ornament,” and Felix himself. Her younger brother largely discouraged her from publishing her music under her own name, but he did publish several of her songs under his name. (This later led to embarrassment on his part, when Queen Victoria announced her intention to sing her favourite of Felix’s songs, which he had not in fact written.)

Thus in 1829, as Fanny was preparing for marriage, Abraham encouraged Felix to travel Europe. “Examine the various countries closely to fix on one where you wish to live,” he instructed. “You are to make your name and gifts known, and was to press forward in your work.”

The trip, which lasted nearly three years, was transformational for the young man. He went first to Britain, where he was warmly received and composed the Hebrides Overture and the Scottish Symphony based on inspiration from the British Isles. The poet Goethe then suggested that he go to Italy, which he did, and ended up spending a year and a half there; during which he began his first piano concerto and the Italian Symphony.

The tone of the entire work makes clear how very happy Mendelssohn was during his travels. “Today was so rich that now, in the evening, I must collect myself a little,” he wrote in a letter from Venice, “and so I am writing to you to thank you, dear parents, for having given me all this happiness.” Of the new symphony, he wrote to Fanny, who was at home taking care of her one-year-old, “The Italian symphony is making great progress. It will be the jolliest piece I have ever done.” The music captures the warmth of the Italian sun and sunny outlook of a young man with the world at his feet; the second movement calls to mind the church services which he observed in Rome, and the final movement he called a saltarello, after a leaping Italian dance.