Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, Scottish

Notes by TŌN clarinetist Matthew Griffith

The Scottish Castle
Despite its editorial number, Symphony No. 3 was the fifth and final symphony Felix Mendelssohn completed. He did not publish it with a nickname, but after his death it was famously dubbed the “Scottish” upon the discovery of its vivid origin story. Rarely can we trace a piece of fine art back to a single magical moment of inspiration, but we know from Mendelssohn’s letters that he conceived this work precisely on July 30, 1829 in a Scottish castle rich with history:

“We went, in the deep twilight, to the Palace of Holyrood, where Queen Mary lived and loved. There is a little room to be seen there, with a winding staircase leading up to it. This the murderers ascended, and finding [David] Rizzio in a little room, drew him out. Three chambers away is a small corner where they killed him. […] Everything around is broken and moldering, and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found today in the old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.”

There he sketched the work’s somber opening melody and little more, focusing most of his attention on other music for more than a decade. Eventually he returned his attention to this symphony leading to its premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1842.

The Music
Symphony No. 3 is in four continuous movements which vary wildly in emotion, perhaps depicting the scenes of love, murder, and decay that Mendelssohn once imagined. The first movement begins with his original melody, a gloomy atmosphere from which the rest of the piece blossoms. After an anxious and fretful Allegro un poco agitato, welcome relief arrives with the second movement. It is well-known among woodwind players such as myself, as the jolly tune and inner technical passages are commonly asked in auditions. Conjuring the right attitude for this festive dance is certainly more difficult when the other instruments are nowhere to be found! The third movement relaxes into a serene stroll with lush melodies, alternating between pleasant tip-toeing and a more serious noble march. Turmoil returns in the fourth movement, more vicious and energetic than ever, driving us toward a dramatic tragic conclusion that never happens. Surprisingly, Mendelssohn’s original melody makes a triumphant return, wrapping a happy conclusive bow around this masterpiece. We hope today’s performance can similarly bring positive closure to your day.