Mendelssohn in Italy

Sometimes we DP volunteers wonder whether anyone actually reads or uses the e-books we produce. After all, with most of the world’s best-known works already posted to Project Gutenberg, nowadays we tend to labor on the somewhat obscure.


Felix Mendelssohn in 1839

But the books we produce are being read and used every day, by readers, students, teachers, scholars, and even musicians. Here’s a real-life example: Last year, my husband, an orchestra conductor, asked me to put together some program notes for one of his concerts. His idea was to have me be a sort of narrator, reading the notes to the audience before each piece. One of the pieces was to be Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, the “Italian.”

Because the notes were to be given live, I wanted to make sure they’d be especially interesting to a general audience.

Technical details about the music were not going to do the trick. With the Italian Symphony, I was in luck twice over. First, in the course of my research, I learned that it had been inspired by Mendelssohn’s first trip to Italy in 1830, when he was just 21. Second, better yet, I remembered a book then in progress at DP and since posted to PG: the Letters of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy from Italy and Switzerland. I decided to take appropriate excerpts from the letters and read one before each movement of the symphony.

These exuberant letters to Mendelssohn’s parents, brother, and sisters back home in Berlin express the manifold wonders he experienced on his journey. The ruined glory of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, the stunning loveliness of the hills, the romantic palazzi and canals of Venice, all spoke to his deepest sense of beauty.

Here is young Mendelssohn, newly arrived in Venice, eagerly writing to his parents on October 10, 1830:

Italy at last! And what I have all my life considered as the greatest possible felicity is now begun, and I am basking in it.

You can hear this youthful enthusiasm in the exciting opening bars of the Italian Symphony, which he began writing on this trip. As he wrote to his sister Fanny from Rome on February 22, 1831:

I have once more begun to compose with fresh vigour, and the Italian symphony makes rapid progress; it will be the most sportive piece I have yet composed, especially the last movement.

Except for the last movement, which is based on a lively Italian dance called the saltarello, there is nothing particularly Italian about the music itself. Rather, it evokes the impressions of an awestruck tourist, impressions he shared with his family in his letters home.

The stately tone of the symphony’s second movement is reflected in this letter to his parents, from Rome, November 8, 1830:

Just as Venice, with her past, reminded me of a vast monument: her crumbling modern palaces, and the perpetual remembrance of former splendour, causing sad and discordant sensations; so does the past of Rome suggest the impersonation of history; her monuments elevate the soul, inspiring solemn yet serene feelings, and it is a thought fraught with exultation that man is capable of producing creations, which, after the lapse of a thousand years, still renovate and animate others.

The third movement of the symphony, a graceful minuet, puts one in mind of Botticelli’s lovely painting, Primavera. It hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where Mendelssohn immersed himself in the glories of Italian art, as he wrote to his sisters, June 25, 1831:

I have to-day passed the whole forenoon, from ten till three, in the gallery; it was glorious!… I wandered about among the pictures, feeling so much sympathy, and such kindly emotions in gazing at them. I now first thoroughly realized the great charm of a large collection of the highest works of art. You pass from one to the other, sitting and dreaming for an hour before some picture, and then on to the next…. I could not help meditating on all these great men, so long passed away from earth, though their whole inner soul is still displayed in such lustre to us, and to all the world.

The symphony’s rushing, leaping saltarello finale may have been inspired by something like the festival Mendelssohn saw in Florence, as he described it to his sisters on June 26, 1831:

It was Midsummer’s day, and a celebrated fête was to take place in Florence the same evening…. I heard a tumult, and looking out of the window I saw crowds, both young and old, all hurrying in their holiday costumes across the bridges. I followed them to the Corso, and then to the races; afterwards to the illuminated Pergola, and last of all to a masked ball in the Goldoni Theatre…. I recalled to myself the various occurrences of the day, and the thoughts that had chased each other through my mind, and resolved to write them all to you. It is in fact a reminiscence for myself, for it may not be so suggestive to you, but it will one day be of service to me, enabling me to recall various scenes connected with fair Italy.

It was indeed of service to him. The memories and inspirations of the trip, recorded in his letters, enabled him to finish the symphony quickly upon his return to Germany, and he himself conducted the premiere in London in 1833. Although he was never entirely happy with it, it deservedly remains one of the most popular works in the symphonic repertoire.

And, thanks to DP, the audience at my husband’s concert, hearing Mendelssohn’s own words accompany his music, cheered loud and long.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

3 Responses to Mendelssohn in Italy

  1. genknit says:

    It must have been a lot of fun to incorporate Mendelssohn’s letters into the concert! I’m glad you were able to do that. What a great way to show that the books we produce at DP really do make a difference. Thank you!

  2. Bel says:

    Thanks for sharing this. 🙂 It made me go and look for the (German) original, alas no luck.
    Anyway, it sounds truly fascinating and is a very good example of why volunteering at DP is so rewarding. 🙂

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