Thursday, 12 June 2014

Felix Mendelssohn: Scottish Inspired Music

“The Scottish” (1842) and “The Hebrides” (1830)

Mendelssohn’s 3rd Symphony, The “Scottish”, was inspired by a walking tour around the highlands of Scotland, which he took with his friend Carl Klingemann in the summer of 1829, and draws on indelible memories of visits to the Highlands where he was particularly captivated by Edinburgh’s craggy scenery, making sketches which still exist today. In the ruined chapel of Mary Stuart he noted down the introduction that some twelve years later would inspire the "Scottish". Mixing a dark storytelling mood with a fleetingly Scottish folk music style (the lively second movement is melodically and rhythmically in the style of Scottish folk music, although no direct quotations have been identified), Mendelssohn employs whirling Scottish rhythms with some panache and shapes this exhilarating symphony to exultant, but paradoxically Germanic conclusion.

Mendelssonhn was also naturally compelled to write music when he visited Fingal’s Cave on the bleak uninhabited island of Staffa in the Hebrides. It was here, on August 7th 1829 whilst overlooking the Isle of Mull, that Mendelssohn found the inspiration for his orchestral piece and wrote the opening theme the next day. Though labelled as an overture, it is intended to stand as a complete work. Although programme music, it does not tell a specific story and is not "about" anything; instead, the piece depicts a mood and "sets a scene", making it an early example of a musical tone poem.

The sense of Hebridean wonder soon abated, however. Moving on to Wales, Mendelssohn began work on his Op.12 String Quartet. He was less taken with Welsh national music, which he described in a letter as "having given me a toothache!"

Although the image was cultivated, especially after Mendelssohn’s death in the detailed family memoirs by his nephew Sebastian Hensel, of a man always equable, happy and placid in temperament, this was a bit misleading. The nickname "discontented Polish count" was given to Mendelssohn because of his aloofness, and he referred to the epithet in his letters. Some regard Mendelssohn as sentimental and second-rank because his reputation was assailed by Wagner, who had his own ambitions for a nationalistic German culture, and who had been spurned as a youth when he had sent sheet music to Mendelssohn for his perusal.

But there was also a certain indelible fieriness about Mendessohn. Perhaps that’s why he resonated with the Scottish landscape, people and music. Mendelssohn was frequently given to alarming fits of temper which occasionally led to collapse. On one occasion in the 1830s, when his wishes had been crossed, shortly after his visit to Scotland, "his excitement was increased so fearfully ... that when the family was assembled ... he began to talk incoherently, and in English, to the great terror of them all. The stern voice of his father at last checked the wild torrent of words; they took him to bed, and a profound sleep of twelve hours restored him to his normal state". Such fits may be related to his early death at age 38, although it did cross my mind that maybe he had sneaked a bottle of single malt back with him and had over indulged that night, letting a few choice Scottish phrases out.

Painting: Joseph Mallord William Turner: Staffa, Fingal’s Cave (1831-1832)
Photography: Scottish lochs by Karl Williams

Karl William's subjects are wide and varied, ranging from landscapes, both natural and urban, through wildlife to exterior and interior architectural detail. Much of his recent work makes use of the HDR (High Dynamic Range) imaging technique. Karl is currently based in Glasgow.

By North Utsire

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