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Music History: The Scottish Symphony

The Scottish Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn 

Symphony Report by Luciana Garcia-Huidobro

(click here to listen while reading)


"This is what I think art is and what I demand of it: that it pull everyone in, that it show one person another's most intimate thoughts and feelings, that it throw open the window of the soul”. Felix Mendelssohn was a romantic composer, pianist, organist and conductor from Germany. Music was a big part of the family from a very young age. He was the brother of prominent composer Fanny Mendelssohn. Both prodigies are remembered to this day. Mendelssohn had local success early in his career. He then became a prominent composer throughout Europe. Coming from a Jewish family, his works have increased in value and praise in the years after his death due to anti-Semitism expanding during his lifetime. Felix Mendelssohn is known for many truly incredible pieces such as The Italian Symphony, oratorio St. Paul, Elijah and mature Violin Concerto. In this essay, we will be discussing his symphony No. 3, otherwise known as The Scottish Symphony. An intense, creative and beautifully arranged piece. 

The symphony begins with the strings and horns introducing the listener to a pleasant harmony. Showcasing Mendelssohn’s characteristically conservative composing, contrary to other romantic composers like Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz. The first violins then take an independent rhythmic route, upgrading the pace and keeping the listener engaged until the full orchestra comes in and the dynamics increase. A sudden silence leaves the ear expectant, relieving the anticipation with more tender harmonic dance between the string and wind instruments. After the flutes do some storytelling, the celebration begins. Dynamics shift rapidly and abruptly, all the instruments start doing different things that blend perfectly into one big crescendo and then we are back down, welcoming the flutes to lead us in a brief path of light joy. The drums come in and so does the complete orchestra, shifting the direction of the path to an exciting and loud one. It goes back and forth for the remaining of the first movement, innovating harmonically and rhythmically every time the piece crescendos and decrescendos. It is very fascinating to hear what innovative dynamics will do for a piece of music. 

The second movement begins with a steady, rhythmic drive from the violins as the flutes build up to the drums and bass coming in. Although the rhythm changes, the relationship between wind and string remains constant; strings drive the rhythm, winds lead with melody. There is more dynamic play but it is more prepared in this movement. Specially by the strings. They announce something is coming. There are more crescendos rather than abrupt dynamic shifts, as opposed to the first movement. My favorite thing about this movement is the way rhythm drives the piece. As a rock fan myself, it is fascinating to hear the effect of driving eighths being used in such a different context. 

The third movement, Adagio, opens with some nostalgic violins. Then the basses come in with some interesting picking, this being the first time we hear the bass technique in the piece. The beginning of this movement is refreshing to the ear as it is smooth and flows well while having this exciting new element added to the lower strings. There is almost a pause and then it is time for the wind instruments to shine. After they re-introduce themselves, the grandioso energy of an entire orchestra working together is at effect. Overall, this movement lets the ear rest a little bit. The rhythms aren’t too innovative, but they keep the listener involved. The dynamic shifts are even more prepared than in Vivace non Troppo, the second movement. 

Allegro Vivacisimo, the last movement, goes all out from the beginning. The strings contrast the winds back and forth since the opening note. Then the dynamic goes down for all instruments but only in preparation for a sudden shift. The cellos seem to prepare the stronger and louder measures more in this movement, a job typically left to the violins throughout the piece. What is fascinating about this movement is that there is no real break. All the softer parts give the listener a sense of anticipation for a big crescendo or a sudden dynamic shift. Slow, sustained rhythms seem to disappear, making eighth notes always present in one instrument or another. The grandioso ending is fascinating. The strings guide the listener back down from the intensity and the flute comes in to close with a beautiful melody, harmonized by multiple instruments in a very soothing way. The music decrescendos and then a whole-sounding and unifying ending that every instrument takes part on guides the piece into completion.

I really love this piece so it is a challenge to find something wrong with it. However, my least favorite movement is Adagio. As a singer myself, the element that catches my ear when listening to any genre of music is the voice. Which translates into a higher demand of action to retain my attention when listening to orchestral music, where there is no human voice. Adagio is slower paced and allows the ear to breathe, which to some is a needed element but for me, it is an opportunity for my mind to shift its attention elsewhere. 

My favorite movement is Allegro Vivacisimo. From the opening, it hooks the ear into a roller-coaster ride full of rhythmic innovation, instrumental conversation and dynamic dance.  The element I love the most about this movement is the ending. After the winds have their motivic dance, the entire orchestra is united in this epic farewell that concludes a great piece perfectly. It is a powerful example of giving the music what it needs.

In conclusion, Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony (No. 3) is a phenomenal piece that exceeds the ear’s expectation with dynamic play, melodic flow and rhythmic movement. It walks straight down the fine line between innovation and overly complicated harmony without ever crossing it. This piece is a perfect example of Mendelssohn’s worship of music, he gives the piece exactly what it needs, when it does. Still I wonder, what would have been created if Felix Mendelssohn ever crossed the line?

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