Linda Shaver-Gleason, Ph.D. Musicologist, Writer, Program Annotator, Teacher

Program Notes

Historical Approach

These program notes, written for the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra's 2015-2016 season, emphasize the historical background of Felix Mendelssohn's string symphonies. While the notes still contain description, the goal is to help the audience appreciate the context of the work within Mendelssohn's career.

Felix Mendelssohn's parents recognized and encouraged his musical talent at an early age, providing the prodigy with the resources upon which he would build a successful career. By the age of 10, Mendelssohn took composition lessons with Carl Friedrich Zelter, who impressed upon his pupil the importance of studying Baroque and early Classical music. Zelter introduced Mendelssohn to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, sparking a lifelong love of the fugue. In his studies, Mendelssohn composed twelve string symphonies between 1821 and 1823, at the ages of twelve to fourteen. Mendelssohn had the advantage of hearing these string symphonies played right away, as his home became a gathering place for intellectuals and local musicians. Through these string symphonies, Mendelssohn worked out classical musical techniques such as sonata form, which traditionally gives shape to the first movement. He also played with texture, dividing sections of instruments in unconventional ways to create new effects. The Symphony for Strings no. 9 in C major, "Swiss" is a prime example of this experimentation; it features a divided viola section, creating a five- or six-part harmony, depending on whether the basses played with the cellos. Mendelssohn composed his ninth string symphony in March 1823, when he was fourteen years old.

It begins with a trudging Grave introduction that gives way to a balanced Allegro. Rather than using two contrasting themes for his sonata form, Mendelssohn submits just one theme to the process, borrowing a technique often used by Haydn. In the development section, however, he reconfigures the theme into a fugue, an early indication of how deeply the music of Bach influenced his style. In the Andante, Mendelssohn divides the string orchestra in a non-standard way. The movement begins with just the violins, divided into four parts for a light, gentle impression. The basses, cellos, and violas—still split into two parts—issue a response that is dark and brooding, building layer upon layer. The violins return with their ethereal strains, and the lower strings are folded into the texture before the end of the movement. The sprinting Scherzo gives way to a pastoral Trio section that gives the symphony its nickname: The first violins play a folksong labeled "La Suisse," with a yodel tag at the end of its phrases. The string symphony ends with a bustling Allegro vivace that constructs yet another fugue before sprinting to the conclusion.

©2015 Linda Shaver-Gleason

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