Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11

Written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Felix Mendelssohn’s childhood contradicts the Romantic idea that great art must emerge from great struggle. He enjoyed more advantages than perhaps any other composer: he was born to an educated and wealthy family (grandson of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and son of a prominent banker who converted to Protestantism); had natural gifts for music, drawing, and languages; and had parents who nurtured his talents without exploiting him as a child prodigy. They hired whole orchestras to try out his youthful compositions in their sprawling Berlin home and provided him with the best teachers of all kinds.

In 1821, the 12-year-old was taken to Weimar to spend two weeks visiting with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the grandfatherly poet at the pinnacle of German literature. Deliberating with a panel of local musicians, Goethe declared that Mendelssohn’s music bore “the same relation to the Mozart of that age that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person does to the prattle of a child.” The comparison still holds up with two centuries of hindsight. While Mozart was remarkably facile at a young age, most of the pieces before his early 20s are curiosities on the way to deeper things. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, had exited his juvenile phase by his mid-teens (with more than a dozen string sinfonias already behind him), and his Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and String Octet are some of the only pieces by any teenaged composer to truly endure in the repertoire, equal to those of any adult.

With the Symphony No. 1 in C minor, written at age 15, we find Mendelssohn right on the cusp of this transition. It was composed in 1824 (the same year Beethoven was finishing his Ninth Symphony) and premiered on November 14 at a Sunday “musicale” in the family home, celebrating his sister Fanny’s 19th birthday. The following year he conducted it on a public concert in Berlin, and then revived it on a tour of London in 1829, adding a dedication to the Philharmonic Society. Mendelssohn must have known its worth and remained unjaded; not many 20-year-olds would continue to stand by a teenaged opus.

The Music

The symphony’s C-minor setting offers a little adolescent angst at the start, but it soon moves on to be fresh and energetic. The first movement follows the Classical sonata form in the mold of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven—Mendelssohn also had the advantage of building on his immediate predecessors without the pressure of total reinvention. Yet the giddy vitality of his writing reflects a unique voice, and the symphony never feels derivative or overly studied.

The slow movement visits the warmer relative key E-flat major. Though he first unfurls a hymn-like theme, his eagerness keeps sneaking in with faster notes in the accompaniment, urging the tune along. This was his first time writing for an orchestra with both winds and strings, and he deftly handles the groups both in consort and in contrast.

The menuetto takes imaginative turns in what is often a cookie-cutter courtly dance movement. The trio section in particular plays with different speeds in layers—the clarinets and bassoons (answered by the solo flute) play a slow-moving melody over delicately rippling strings, giving a feeling of suspended time. Then Mendelssohn writes an unusually extended transition back to the repeat of the menuetto.

The finale brings back some of the first movement’s volatility, but works through it to reach a bold C-major resolution. Along the way, he twice embarks on a fugue—a bit of academic display—but balances it with playful pizzicato sections and other purely sonic touches bordering on delightfully silly. Clearly Mendelssohn had studied it all, but was never self-conscious about what he was “supposed to” do.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.