Inside the Music: Rococo and Revolution

Discover more about classical music with our new video series and interactive programme notes.

Music by kind permission of Naxos Records

Darkness contrasts with light in two of Romantic music’s most brilliant symphonies

Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, written at a time of personal trouble, is an eloquent expression of deep unease and resigned acceptance. Meanwhile, Mendelssohn’s celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Reformation is a joyous affair, complete with stately Lutheran hymns, one of his most stunning symphonic slow movements and a scherzo to bring a smile to your face. The Canadian-German cellist Johannes Moser takes to the stage in Tchaikovsky’s 18th-century-inspired variations, showcasing the cello’s ability to bridge all moods, from sorrowful to playful.

10 things you didn’t know about… Mendelssohn

  • Queen Victoria’s favourite song was attributed to Felix Mendelssohn but was, in fact, written by his sister, Fanny.
  • He was also friends with Prince Albert, and the two spent time playing the organ together at Buckingham Palace.
  • When he was 12, Mendelssohn’s piano teacher took him to meet Goethe.
  • Mendelssohn had a deep love of the city of Birmingham, making regular trips to the town hall to conduct, and play the organ. His oratorio Elijah was premiered there in 1846.
  • During his trip to Fingal’s Cave, Mendelssohn was very prone to seasickness.
  • The very first use of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March as an organ voluntary at an English wedding was in Tiverton in 1847.
  • Mendelssohn wrote the music to the carol ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’.
  • Through his pioneering performance of the St Matthew Passion, Mendelssohn was instrumental in bringing the music of Bach back into public favour, where it has stayed ever since.
  • He was also one of the first to use a baton when conducting.
  • Mendelssohn was just 38 when he died only a few months after his sister.

VIDEO: Oliver Condy on the significance of the cello

VIDEO: Jonathan James on Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony

Listen out for… 5 key moments

  1. Schubert: ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, first movement, Allegro moderato

At around one and a half minutes in, the dark (albeit very beautiful) theme of the opening movement suddenly gives way to a key change and a lyrical secondary melody on the cellos. The clouds lift and the sun peeks through.

  1. Schubert: ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, second movement, Andante con moto

Schubert briefly invokes the angry spirit of Beethoven around three and a half minutes into the movement – it’s a sudden and disconcerting change of mood.

  1. Tchaikovsky: Rococo Variations

Tchaikovsky gives the cello its glory moment during the short cadenza just after the fifth variation – it explores the instrument’s tonal and technical range, moving seamlessly into the calm intimacy of the beautiful sixth variation.

  1. Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 ‘Reformation’, first movement

Listen to how the ‘Dresden Amen’ floats in ethereally at around 2’30” – Wagner used exactly the same theme throughout his opera Parsifal to magnificent effect almost exactly 50 years later. In a cruel twist, Wagner set out to destroy Mendelssohn’s reputation through anti-Semitic writings.

  1. Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 ‘Reformation’, final movement

The dramatic,  final movement is a giant fantasy on a Luther’s hymn ‘A mighty fortress if our God’ – the melody is intoned softly at the start, and in spectacular fashion with full orchestra in the final minute of the work.

A master of song, Lutheran celebrations and the elegance of the cello

The extraordinary thing about Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony is that the work, written in 1822, wasn’t performed until over 40 years later, and even then it turned out to be way ahead of its time. Symphony No. 8 is a devastating work, coinciding with the diagnosis of the composer’s syphilis. From then on, Schubert, who died of the disease at the tender age of 31, would have had something of a sword of Damocles hanging over him. The ‘Unfinished’ has the mark of a man who knows his end only too well, its beautifully devastating passages contrasting with moments of blissful acceptance. This painful contrast in the first movement is echoed in the second, with its prophesies of doom eased by moments of pure radiant sunshine. Schubert’s handling of the symphony’s mood changes are sheer genius, highlighting him as as brilliant an orchestral composer as he was a master of song.

The publication of Mendelssohn’s final symphony, his ‘Reformation’, was also delayed, but this time because the composer himself was unhappy with it. It was originally written to celebrate the tercentenary of the 1530 Augsburg Confession, effectively the establishment of the Lutheran church, but wasn’t performed until 1832, two years after the celebrations. Mendelssohn’s symphony is both grand and joyful, its expansive opening movement incorporating the ‘Dresden Amen’ (intriguingly, a Catholic Amen which Mendelssohn used to demonstrate the universality of the Lutheran faith) with Luther’s own hymn ‘Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott’ (A mighty fortress is our God) making a spectacular appearance at the end as a final blast of faith. But Mendelssohn’s symphony, as you’ll hear, isn’t bound down by the restrictions of its subject matter – the second movement scherzo is as radiant and joyful as anything from the composer’s incidental music to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and the slow movement’s calming tones recall one of the composer’s beautiful ‘Songs Without Words’ – an aria, in effect, without voice.

Tchaikovsky’s love of Mozart and Haydn was the germ for his Rococo Variations, and was the closest he came to writing an actual cello concerto. It’s a charming work, written at a time when his friendship with his patron Nadezhda von Meck was flourishing. The Rococo Variations begin with a charming opening melody, styled by the composer in the Classical style, after which the cello embarks on a series of inventive and colourful variations ranging from the impassioned to the mischievous, including an enchanting double act with solo flute and a sorrowful duet with clarinet.

Further listening

Schubert – Symphony No. 9

Schubert final and finest symphonic utterance, the ‘great’ C major, is full of melodic and harmonic invention – and its grandeur (in ambition and length) is a tribute to Beethoven’s mighty Symphony No. 9.

Recommended recording: Philharmonia Orchestra/Charles Mackerras (Signum SIGCD133)

Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 4, ‘Italian’

Mendelssohn’s musical depiction of Italy’s Amalfi coast (which he also portrayed in stunning watercolours) is joyful and irrepressible, and full of Mediterranean sunshine. The final ‘Saltarello’ movement makes use of the rhythms of Neapolitan dances. Mendelssohn described it as ‘the jolliest piece I have so far written…and the most mature thing I have ever done.’

Recommended recording: London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Eliot Gardiner (LSO Live LSO0769)

Words by Oliver Condy

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