Royalty, riches and ruins – oh my! Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony has it all. We take a look at the origins of the young composer’s famous work ahead of WASO’s performances this week.
Composers in the 1800s were typically from well-off families, however none perhaps more so than Felix Mendelssohn. Born into a family that was both cultured and wealthy, Mendelssohn enjoyed certain ‘advantages’ as a child. Associating with the rich and famous, receiving comprehensive education from some of the best teachers in Europe, and travelling across the continent were par-for-the-course. Young Mendelssohn even had a private orchestra at his disposal to try out his new compositions! Such luxuries meant that Mendelssohn completed his first symphony for full orchestra at the age of just 15.
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.3 was in fact the composer’s fifth and final, with his symphonies numbered by date of publication rather than order of composition. It was also his longest composition; from first conception to final publication, Mendelssohn spent 22 years refining the symphony - more than half his life.
Mendelssohn conceived the idea for his Scottish Symphony on his first and only trip to Scotland at the age of 20. A lads trip with family friend Karl Klingemann could have easily descended into debauchery, however for the educated and well-to-do Mendelssohn, it seems he was fixated on music alone.
On July 30, 1829, Mendelssohn wrote home to his family following a visit to Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh:
“In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved… The chapel close to it is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything round is broken and mouldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I have found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.”
At that point Mendelssohn then wrote several bars of a piano score with jottings to indicate instrumentation. 22 years on, in 1841, these bars grew into the Andante opening of the Symphony, a dark and brooding passage reflecting the chapel ruins in the dusky light.
Mendelssohn was not the only creative inspired by the twilight at Holyrood Abbey. The ruins are perhaps best known through the painting ‘The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel’ by French artist Louis Daguerre. Completed around 1824, the artwork depicts a moonlit version of what Mendelssohn would have seen during his visit in the same period. Indeed, a moonlit visit to the Abbey was a popular tourist attraction at the time.
Once a royal residence in its own right, the abbey ruins now lie as a protected monument on the site of Holyrood Palace; the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland.
Full of orchestral colour, this symphony sweeps the listener into a vision of fading light on an eerie crumbling chapel. Experience the majesty and mystery for yourself.
Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony
Morning Symphony: Thur 28 April, 11.00am
MACA Classics: Fri 29 & Sat 30 April, 7.30pm
Perth Concert Hall