Italian Symphony

Felix Mendelssohn

Italian Symphony in A major

Op. 90 • “Symphony No.4”

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

In early 1833, Mendelssohn completed his Symphony No. 4 in A major, published posthumously as his Op. 90. He started the piece in Italy in 1832 and finished it in Berlin. It was first performed in London on March 13, 1833, and has since been Mendelssohn's most popular symphony. The composer gave the piece its nickname, "Italian."

Somewhat dissatisfied with the Symphony in A major, Mendelssohn planned to revise it before publication; this never occurred however, and the piece was published as it stood after his death. The composer noted that in the symphony he tried to convey his personal impressions of the art, nature, and people of Italy. Musically, it is a more tightly-controlled, original work than his previous symphonies; the opening theme is among the most famous in all music.

Mendelssohn's signature orchestral textures are evident from the very beginning: pulsing woodwinds create a harmonic background for the simple, horn-call theme in the violins. The rapid pace and fragmentary nature of the theme keep the music from falling into predictable rendering of the 6/8 meter. Two more themes appear before the development section, in which we hear fugato treatment of the main theme, the transitional theme and new melodic material in the minor mode. The recapitulation is not literal; everything is varied. In the coda, the minor-mode theme from the development returns, but the movement closes on A major.

Ignaz Moscheles contended that the main theme of the second movement, an Andante con moto in D minor, contains the melody of a Czech pilgrim song; others claim it is a rendition of Karl Friedrich Zelter's "Es war ein König in Thule." Cast in D minor, the elegant movement has two major sections arranged in an ABAA' pattern, the contrasting B section emphasizing A major. The closing, quiet, pizzicato bass notes convey a sense of resignation.

The third movement, Con moto moderato, is a fairly conventional minuet and trio in A major, possibly inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's humorous poem, Lilis Park. In the coda, the melody of the trio section tries, unsuccessfully, to assert itself over that of the minuet.

Mendelssohn entitled the Finale, "Saltarello," which is a lively Neopolitan dance featuring hopping and jumping; the fast main theme conveys the leaping aspect of the dance. The movement's high point is the central development, in which Mendelssohn creates a continuos crescendo from pianissimo to fortissimo. Near the close we hear a reference to the main theme of the first movement, but on A minor, the key in which the movement ends.