Symphony No.1

Felix Mendelssohn

Symphony No.1 in C minor

Op. 11

About this work

Mendelssohn's first 13 symphonies are for strings only, including the one now referred to as No. 13, a single movement in C minor from 1823; however, the manuscript for the Symphony No. 1 in C minor, published in 1828 in Berlin as Op. 11, bears the inscription, "XIII," suggesting that Mendelssohn did not regard the earlier, single-movement piece as a completed string symphony.

The Symphony No. 1 was completed on March 31, 1824, when Mendelssohn was 15 years old. Like the previous string symphonies, this is clearly modeled on works by Mozart, with passages betraying the intense study of J.S. Bach's contrapuntal masterpieces. While the piece reveals the young composer's mastery of musical materials, it does not speak with an individual, inspired voice. While in London in 1829, Mendelssohn conducted a performance of his Symphony in C minor at a Philharmonic concert of May 25, substituting for the Minuet a shortened and orchestrated version of the Scherzo from his Octet, Op. 20.

Mendelssohn's first movement is Mozartian in its construction and contrasts. The grace of the falling scales and arpeggios of the main theme gives way to the lyrical second theme. After a cursory development section, the recapitulation, like the exposition, heads toward the major mode at its close. A lengthy coda returns the movement to C minor. The slow movement, an Andante in E flat major, is the most mature movement of the symphony. It is more harmonically adventurous than the other movements and the instrumentation is beautifully transparent. Formally, it is a combination of sonata form and variation technique, its rhythmic drive derived from a syncopated string accompaniment. Possibly the most characteristic sounding movement of the symphony is the Menuetto marked Allegro molto and in 6/4 meter. The main theme, in C minor, has a shape similar to that of the first movement and focuses on the juxtaposition of G natural and A flat. The trio section provides contrast with a slow, ponderous theme in the clarinets and bassoons accompanied at first by rising arpeggios and later by falling arpeggios in the strings. Contrapuntal artifice comes to the fore in the Finale, an Allegro con fuoco in C minor/major. After a lively exposition with a frenetic main theme in the violins and a lengthy pizzicato segment, the development proceeds to a strict fugue. Fugal passages and simple stretto permeate the boisterous coda, which closes the symphony triumphantly in C major.