Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony Number 3 in A Minor

Must artists suffer in order to produce great works? If life deals you one bad card after another, does that necessarily lead to high achievement? If so, does degree of suffering determine how great? For example, how many points do you get for being an orphan or a manic depressive? What if you had an alcoholic father who beat you up? How much do you get for being born into crushing poverty? If pain and suffering guarantees great art, then you could envision someone with a torn toenail claiming victim-hood, writing a book, and ending up on Oprah. But surely, wouldn’t good taste would dictate against that?

How about the flip side: what if you were born to luxury, had loving parents, given the best tutors and went to the best schools? Would that guarantee superficiality? Look at John Stuart Mill, whose parent hired servants who spoke Latin so that the boys first language would be that of Virgil. He is considered a great philosopher. And what about Mendelssohn?

Mendelssohn was the grandson of a Jewish philosopher whose personal mission was to try to reconcile the Jew and the Christians. His father was a very successful banker in Hamburg who converted to Christianity. Mendelssohn was schooled early in violin and piano and was quickly recognized as a prodigy. When he was twelve, he began writing a string symphonies, racking up a total of 12 by the time he was 15. The next one was first labeled Number 13, but he later changed it to Number 1.

Mendelssohn had a meteoric career as a composer, performer and conductor travelling frequently between Leipzig, Berlin, and Dresden. On a trip to England and Scotland, he was inspired by the tower where Queen Mary was kept at Holyrood, and the theme for the Hebrides Overture and Symphony Number 3 came to him on that visit. He soon finished the overture but he put aside the symphony for about twelve years. In the meantime, he wrote the Fourth Symphony called The Italian.Some prodigy: he obviously wasn’t too good at math.

What he was good at was bridging the gap between classicism and romanticism. The first movement of the Scotch Symphony, starts out with a brooding melody that eventually turns lush and romantic, foreshadowing much of the music of the rest of the 19th century of Brahms, Tchaikowsky, and Grieg. The second movement, marked Vivace non troppo (fast, but not too) starts out almost like a quick movement from a symphony by Mozart. It seems to be based on a Scottish tune, but it has a non-characteristic joy to it. In the third movement, the Adagio Mendelssohn goes back to his Germanic musical roots, especially to Beethoven–complete with gentle tympani accompanying a bucolic melody. A big crash wakes us up as the fourth movement takes off, leaping off the page with trumpet blasts. For the last movement, we return to the Scottish feel of the second movement for a while, but Mendelssohn is in his full mature style here, deftly mixing the classical tempo and orchestra with the lush romantic emotions. He brings the whole symphony to an end with a swelling, vibrant and almost majestic coda that ties everything together nicely.

So I return to my question: does the artist suffer in order to create great art? I’d have to answer no, but that didn’t exempt Mendelssohn, however. He suffered from his own success. He became so sought after that his constant travelling and performing wore him out. While crossing the Prussian border in 1847, he was arrested for having the same name as a political activist of the time. Being detained took its toll, and a few hours after his release, he learned of the death of his beloved sister, Fanny. The shock cause him to burst a cerebral brain vessel and after a few weeks, he died at the ripe old age of 38.

Download MP3 or Buy CD of Symphony on Amazon


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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