Sunday 8 December 2019

Classical: Match a reminder of Mendelssohn's own tour de force

Busy gap year: Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to write his third symphony and the overture, Fingal's Cave, during a visit to Scotland
Busy gap year: Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to write his third symphony and the overture, Fingal's Cave, during a visit to Scotland

George Hamilton

The return of international rugby in the shape of the RBS 6 Nations Championship is the cue for the radio show to go back on tour. It's the Scotland v England game that's my marking this weekend so it's off to Edinburgh with The Hamilton Scores.

There's a curiosity that places the studio that we use there right at the heart of one of music's most wonderful creations.

Our Scottish hosts at the BBC used to be based in a pair of townhouses in the Georgian part of Edinburgh known as the New Town.

With the coming of devolution, their operations moved to a revamped warehouse near the eastern end of the Royal Mile.

It's close to the parliament building which itself is cheek by jowl with Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh residence of the British monarch, and the inspiration for one of the great triumphs of orchestral music, Felix Mendelssohn's 3rd Symphony, otherwise known as the Scottish.

Aged just 20, Mendelssohn had gone off on the 19th century equivalent of a gap year - a grand European tour, funded by wealthy parents. The family owned a bank.

London was an obvious destination. It turned out to be "the grandest and most complicated monster on the face of the earth", as he would write to his father. After that, he'd go to the Scottish Highlands, stopping off in Edinburgh.

On his last evening in the Scottish capital, he took a stroll. There was somewhere he just had to see, a palace familiar to many Germans from Maria Stuart, the drama by their most famous Romantic playwright, Friedrich Schiller. The coronation of Mary Queen of Scots took place at Holyrood.

(There's a musical connection here too, for it was Schiller who wrote the words to the Ode to Joy, the basis for the final movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, subsequently adopted as the Anthem of the European Union.)

Down through cobbled streets he went, to Holyrood, where Mary had "lived and loved", as he would write in another letter home.

"In the deep twilight" he saw the little room where Rizzio, Mary's Italian private secretary, who was said to be her lover, was found, then dragged away to be murdered.

Below, he saw the chapel, "now roofless. Grass and ivy thrive there, and at the broken altar where Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland".

Mendelssohn concludes this atmospheric description of the ruined palace by writing "I think today I have found there the beginning of my Scottish symphony".

Its opening, played andante, represents those ruins. But that opening was as far as Mendelssohn got at the time.

His trip continued the following day.

A week later, he visited the uninhabited island of Staffa which prompted something else. The symphony was put back on the shelf. The Hebrides Overture - dubbed Fingal's Cave by his German publisher - took priority.

And when Mendelssohn's grand tour continued to Italy, the grey Scottish skies and the minor key drama were forgotten in the bright sunshine and the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean. The Italian symphony - all optimistic exuberance - was born.

The catalogue shows it as Mendelssohn's 4th, in A. It would be another decade before the 3rd, the Scottish - actually the last of the five he would write - would to be completed.

It was dedicated to Mary's successor as Queen of Scots, the reigning monarch at the time of its premiere in Leipzig in 1842 - Britain's Queen Victoria.

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