Symphony No. 4 in A major “Italian”, op. 90
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
I. Allegro vivace
II. Andante con moto
III. Con moto moderato
IV. Presto & Finale: Saltarello
First performance: May 13, 1833, London. London Philharmonic Society. Felix Mendelssohn, conductor.
With his Third and Fourth Symphonies, as well as the concert overture The Hebrides, Mendelssohn managed to musicalize the literary travelogue. In 1829 and 1830, he undertook a “Grand Tour” of England, Scotland, Wales, and Italy. Educated young men had been traveling through Europe like this since the late eighteenth century in order to refine their character and cultural sense (what the Germans called Bildung). Along the way, Mendelssohn conducted the London premiere of his Midsummer Night’s Dream overture and visited the sites in Scotland, like Holyrood Abbey and Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa, which would inspire the Hebrides Overture and his Third Symphony. While still working on these pieces, he traveled to Italy, which he managed to portray in music much faster, producing the Symphony No. 4 Italian by 1833, while the “Scottish” Third Symphony would have to wait until 1842.
Mendelssohn came from an era in which some philosophers thought climate profoundly affected human character, language, and culture, which is perhaps why critics at the time heard his Fourth Symphony as “warm” and definitively “southern.” The first movement conveys the breathless excitement of travel and the impression of a pastoral landscape, with its galloping string figures and horn calls, though perhaps not any countryside in particular. In the Andante con moto, we are meant to hear a religious procession (Italian Catholicism being strange to someone from the Protestant north), and the initial melody has something of the placid, meandering character of plainchant. The steady march-like tempo and rhythm has also been compared to the “Marche des pèlerins” in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy (1834), a reminder that Mendelssohn was not the only northern composer fascinated with all things Italian or inspired by literature (in this case Byron). Yet another literary figure, Goethe, may have inspired the third movement of Mendelssohn’s symphony with Lilis Park, a love poem that is at once humorous and sensual. Mendelssohn may have felt the mood suited then-current stereotypes of Italians as openly amorous, even libidinous.
The finale of the symphony comes the closest to a musical postcard in its energetic saltarello rhythm, which Mendelssohn heard when visiting Rome and Naples. With its “little hop” in a quick triple meter, this dance that originated in Tuscany provided the perfect material for a finale. The same is true of the tarantella (already popularized throughout Europe), which Mendelssohn introduces in the development, before combining the two dances to propel the finale into its whirlwind finish. In the Italian Symphony, Mendelssohn created a fine-tuned symphonic drama—an orchestral landscape across which audiences can imagine their own characters and stories.