March 3, 1842—Conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra performance of his own work, Felix Mendelssohn premiered what would turn out to be his last symphony, 12 years after a trip to Scotland that inspired it.
The 20-year-old composer’s visit to the British Isles was a creatively fertile period for him. He was also eagerly anticipating what he would find—he was coming, he told his traveling companion, “with a rake for folk songs, an ear for the lovely, fragrant countryside, and a heart for the bare legs of the natives”—and he received thousands of visual and aural impressions that found their way into Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Opus 56—the “Scottish Symphony”—as well as his Hebride Overture.
Most notable was his visit to the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh, which he recounted in a letter home:
“In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; a little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door: up this way they came and found Rizzio in that dark corner, where they pulled him out, and three rooms off there is a dark corner, where they murdered him. The chapel close to it is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything round is broken and mouldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I have found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.”
The musical notes that Mendelssohn jotted down right after this visit found its way into the andante opening of the Scottish Symphony. Still, it would be over a decade before Mendessohn could bear down enough to finish this composition.
Three months after the Leipzig performance, Mendelssohn dedicated his composition to Queen Victoria of Great Britain and consort Prince Albert, who had sung his songs when he visited them.
The composer’s habit of naming his compositions after a motif or setting, while imparting a handle by which to recall the work, also inadvertently inspired an amusing anecdote. Robert Schumann, mistakenly believing that he had just heard the composer’s Italian Symphony, wrote that the symphony was "so beautiful as to compensate for a hearer who has never been to Italy."
As it happens, the Italian Symphony was spotlighted in one of the most delightful films of the past 50 years, the 1979 coming-of-age comedy Breaking Away. The memory of it made me wonder if the Scottish Symphony had also been featured on the big screen. The answer is yes, in, appropriately, enough, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While that 1935 Warner Brothers film features more prominently Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the Shakespeare comedy, the final movement of the symphony is also used, with lyrics by an anonymous writer, adapted by Erich Maria Korngold; and sung by James Cagney and five other stars in the movie.