This week I’m studying Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony. Though it’s known as his 3rd symphony, it was actually the final symphony he wrote. I was fortunate to conduct first the Reformation Symphony (called number 5 but actually written second) and the Italian Symphony (called number 4 but actually written third) with the orchestra of Goodenough College London a few years back, and while I wasn’t intentionally going ‘in order’, the fact that it has worked out this way has led me to appreciate how Mendelssohn’s craft in rhetoric developed over the course of his life. While it is true that Mendelssohn was an incredible prodigy, and his musical language was formed at a very young age, his increased experience as a symphonist makes the narrative of the symphony smooth and seamless, allowing him to put very contrasting musical ideas adjacent to one another in a far more refined and clever way in the Scottish Symphony than in the Reformation. There is excellent insight into Mendelssohn’s progression in the following excerpt of a programme note from the San Francisco Symphony about the Scottish, and a link to the full article below:
“One of the many pleasant perks young Mendelssohn enjoyed was having a private orchestra at his disposal to try out his new compositions at every-other-Sunday musicales instituted in 1822 at the family home in Berlin (the Mendelssohns having moved there from Hamburg in 1811). The composer’s early works were unveiled at these gatherings, among them several of his twelve completed string symphonies, ebullient compositions that chart his progress towards increasing subtlety and refinement in manipulating orchestral forces. The last of the string symphonies was introduced at the end of December 1823. Three months later Mendelssohn, who had just turned fifteen, completed his first symphony for full orchestra, the Symphony No. 1 in C minor (Opus 11), a youthful work still but nonetheless meriting an opus number and, with it, admission to the canon of his “mature” works.
Four symphonies would follow Mendelssohn’s string symphonies and his Symphony No. 1, though not in the order that their eventual numbering implies. The next to be written was the Reformation Symphony, mostly composed in 1829-30 and premiered in 1832, but not published until 1868, when it was identified as the fifth of Mendelssohn’s symphonies. The Italian Symphony followed in 1832, but publication waited until 1851 (four years after the composer’s death), when it was assigned position number four among the symphonies. The Symphony No. 2, a sort of symphonic cantata subtitled Lobgesang—Song of Praise—was the next to be written (in 1841, with publication the following year), and the Symphony No. 3 came last, being completed in 1842 and premiered in 1843. The official numbering of Mendelssohn’s symphonies reflects their publication dates; a chronological lineup based on order of composition would run 1, 5, 4, 2, 3.” -https://www.sfsymphony.org/Data/Event-Data/Program-Notes/M/Mendelssohn-Symphony-No-3-in-A-minor-Opus-56,-Sco