Mendelssohn and his Birkenstocks

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In his early twenties, Felix Mendelssohn did what most of us dream of doing and packed his bags, donned his Birkenstocks, waved goodbye to his home country Germany and set off on a grand tour of Italy. He spent nine months as a proper tourist: seeing the sights, speaking the language very badly and getting scammed by his taxi driver.

For anyone else, such an experience would be complete. But the former child prodigy Mendelssohn strove valiantly to make his holiday into a research trip. Five months into his stay, he wrote to his sister:

I now try to reflect whether I have made the best use of my time, and on every side I perceive a deficiency. If I could only compose one of my two symphonies! I must and will reserve the Italian one till I have seen Naples, which must play a part in it.

Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony, known as the ‘Italian’, was completed two years later. Each of its four movements corresponds to a different city he saw on his trip. For those of us unable to embark on our own continental tours, listening to Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony is the next best thing.


Venice to meet you

(First movement, Allegro vivace)

Mendelssohn’s first stop was Venice. His first impressions were ‘the whole country had a gay festive air, as if a Prince were expected to make his grand entry’. Prince or no prince, the people welcomed Mendelssohn anyway and his letters brim with delight at finally being in Italy.

Venice was always busy. When Mendelssohn went to the Piazza of St Mark, he observed that ‘in the twilight there is always an immense crowd and crush of people’. There was plenty to see and do as well: ‘I hurry from one enjoyment to another hour by hour,’ he wrote.

The lively opening movement recalls the busy streets that greeted Mendelssohn on his arrival, as well as the energy he expounded in his indefatigable visiting of local galleries, palaces, gardens and churches.


There’s no place like Rome

(Second movement, Andante con moto)

Mendelssohn’s stay in Rome coincided with the death of Pius VIII, who has the dubious honour of being the shortest-ruling pope of the nineteenth century. The people of Rome took the news rather lightly, telling themselves: “We shall soon get a new one”.

Mendelssohn went to St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican where the Pope lay in state. He wrote:

Those who place themselves among the singers (as I do) and watch them, are forcibly impressed by the scene: for they all stand round a colossal book from which they sing, and this book is in turn lit up by a colossal torch that burns before it; while the choir are eagerly pressing forward in their vestments, in order to see and to sing properly.

The ‘simple and monotonous’ music he heard here no doubt influenced the slow and restrained second movement.


Going with the Flo(rence)

(Third movement, Con moto moderato)

Florence syndrome is a slightly dubious condition where people faint upon seeing sights of great beauty. In Florence, Mendelssohn frequented the Uffizi Gallery, a prime spot for aesthetically charged swooning. His own health remained intact, but he did report ‘feelings of reverence’ when sitting at his favourite spot.

Mendelssohn encountered many who had low opinions of Titian and Mozart. He found these impertinent, writing: ‘I am at all events determined to say the most harsh and cutting things to those who show no reverence towards their masters’. His own work was openly indebted to the Classical tradition that came before him.

The third movement of the ‘Italian’ Symphony is set as a stately minuet and trio in the style of Mozart. It pays homage to his musical predecessors, Renaissance painters and their shared elegant style.


See Naples and die

(Fourth movement, Saltarello. Presto)

The final stretch of Mendelssohn’s Italian journey saw him leaving Rome for the south. He applied his usual shrewdness to the new sights there, writing:

Yesterday we went to Pompeii. It looks as if it had been burnt down.

But it was in the local traditions of the more rural south that Mendelssohn found his inspiration for the finale of his ‘Italian’ Symphony. He wrote ‘lively Naples is indeed a pleasant contrast’ to ashy Pompeii and he spent many evenings there dancing the night away with village girls, with the sweet sounds of the accordion for accompaniment.

The final movement of Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony is based on the saltarello, an Italian folk dance popular in the south. Its relentlessly high tempo barrels towards an exuberant finish, concluding Mendelssohn’s colourful nine months in Italy.


LMP play Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, ‘Italian’ at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, on Saturday 4 February 2023. Tickets can be purchased here.


by Jessica Peng