Symphony No. 4 in A major »Italian«
Symphony No. 6 in A major
The British newspaper the Guardian recently wrote about Riccardo Chailly, music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, that he is “one of a handful of living conductors who genuinely deserves to be called great”. On his road to “greatness”, one composer played a significant role who is also represented in the programme of Chailly’s current guest performance in Berlin: Anton Bruckner, whose complete symphonies Chailly recorded from the mid-1980s onwards. Critics were effusive in their praise for these interpretations in which sinewy strength prevails rather than soft rapture – and at the same time, they were surprised that a young Italian should have so much to say about German late Romanticism. The Sixth Symphony, which is performed at this concert, is the perfect complement to Chailly’s approach: for Bruckner’s standards, a short work of compressed energy.
In addition to Bruckner, Felix Mendelssohn is also linked to Chailly’s artistic biography. After all, the composer was once head of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and thus Chailly’s predecessor in the role. This concert includes his Fourth Symphony, known as the Italian. The authors’ own assessment of their works adds a certain charm to the pairing with Bruckner’s Sixth: While Bruckner characterised his symphony as his “boldest”, Mendelssohn wrote that the Fourth was “the jolliest piece I have ever done”. Moreover, the fact that an interpretation of the Italian by a conductor with Chailly’s origins can claim a certain authenticity, is something that almost need not be mentioned.
Longing for Italy was not the privilege of the Classical period. The Romantics were even more strongly drawn to the South. The 20-year-old Robert Schumann successfully wheedled funds out of his mother in order to experience gleaming white cities, the fragrance of oranges and “Italian women with fiery, tantalizing eyes”. Louis Spohr undertook his grand tour in 1816 and 1817, Felix Mendelssohn remained in the South for several months during 1830/1831, Franz Liszt arrived in Italy for the first time in 1837 and lived mainly in Rome during the 1860s, Johannes Brahms saw the lemon trees in bloom nine times altogether and Richard Wagner even managed to die in Venice. It does not get more romantic than that. One composer remained steadfast: Anton Bruckner. He saw Italy only from above, from Mont Blanc – peaks, both geological and musical, were his grand passion.
Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony, known as the “Italian”, is the most famous musical documentation of the German longing for Italy. It was composed for the most part in Berlin; the composer never used the designation “Italian” publicly. What Mendelssohn went through with this work was something we only associate with Bruckner. The young genius, who seemed to compose effortlessly, revised the work extensively, continually made changes over the years and prepared different versions, thus creating confusion. Less so among concert organizers and audiences, who for 150 years had – and still have – every reason to be satisfied with the original version of the Italian Symphony from 1833, which will also be heard this evening. The discovery of Mendelssohn’s struggles with the work provided musicologists with important new insights, however; it enabled them to finally correct the distorted image of the midsummer night’s dreamer that has long been presented.
What is specifically Italian about the symphony’s exuberantly high-spirited Allegro vivace? It is the cantabile melodic line of the principal theme and nearly all the secondary themes. This style of part-writing is found in Rossini and Bellini but not in Beethoven. The Andante con moto second movement is devoted to the two sides of Italy which every Baedeker described during the 19th century – on the one hand, Rome, dominated by the monuments of a lost empire and the clerical culture of the Vatican, on the other, Naples, the modern, optimistic, cosmopolitan metropolis in the South. The contrapuntal, darkly orchestrated first theme, which is permeated with solemn archaism, symbolises Rome, and the warmer, more luminous, restrained but exultant second theme, Naples.
The third movement is also full of contrasts. In the revised version Mendelssohn called it a “Menuetto”. Thematically it may have been inspired by Goethe’s early poem “Lili’s Park”, which Mendelssohn read during his Italian travels and intended to set as the scherzo. In that case, the principal theme would represent the menagerie with birds and fish described in the poem, while the trio, in which hunting instruments predominate, depicts the captive bear. The Lili interpretation is certainly open to question, but thus far a better explanation has not been offered. At any rate, the genre-like character of the minuet, its graceful tone and the sharply contrasting “hunting horn” trio make it difficult not to imagine a poetic programme. That is completely impossible in the Saltarello finale. Mendelssohn saw this ancient leaping dance (saltare means “to jump”) in Rome in 1831. Berlioz, who visited the Eternal City at the same time, used a saltarello in the opera Benvenuto Cellini as well as its orchestral excerpt, Le Carnaval romain. Berlioz found the carnival vulgar but could not resist the saltarello, based on bacchanalian dances of ancient Rome, which were remarkably obscene. Mendelssohn had a similar experience, encountering the saltarello at the home of the historical painter Horace Vernet, but depicted it as a tempestuous ritual with imitations of the tambourine and clapping hands.
Longing for Italy was alien to Anton Bruckner. During his travels in Switzerland in 1880, he did not cross the border but took the cable car from Chamonix to La Flégère twice and contented himself with views of Mont Blanc. It was the longest journey of his life and probably the most pleasant. It came during a period of relatively great success. The Sixth Symphony, which was composed at that time, conveys a sense of calm, like Mendelssohn’s Fourth, also in A major. In terms of background, religion and temperament, they were opposites – the polyglot, lionised, aristocratic Mendelssohn and the awkward, provincial Bruckner. There are no greater musical extremes in German-Austrian symphonic music. Despite the great gulf between them, however, both of these A major symphonies give the impression that two brilliant minds have crossed swords. Or methods.
If Mendelssohn struggled with his Italian Symphony in Bruckner fashion, Bruckner sketched his Sixth Symphony with Felix’s supposedly quick hand. If Mendelssohn dared to compose a finale in a minor key, Bruckner refrained from opening the first movement with his otherwise inevitable primeval mist. The Sixth differs from all the other Bruckner symphonies in its style and in countless details. It is a touch more cheerful, lighter; he himself considered it his “boldest”. Even his contemporaries suspected a connection with the journey to Switzerland or his visit to the Passion Play at Oberammergau in 1880.
In addition to the unusual opening, without the typical string tremolo, the symphony’s numerous idiosyncrasies include, in particular, the frequent use of the Phrygian mode, an “oriental-sounding” church mode. The harmony is bewilderingly unconventional, especially in the first movement – not only by Bruckner’s standards. The continuous, but frequently polyrhythmic, pulse might recall train journeys; contemporary listeners repeatedly used metaphors like “sunrise” or “blue sky”. A certain religious aura is reserved for the Adagio, although here as well a song inflamed with worldly beauty dominates – moments of solemn rapture are rare. The Scherzo deviates completely from the usual Brucknerian symphonic concepts. It shows no motivic connections whatsoever with the other three movements – instead, the main theme of the Fifth Symphony is quoted in the Trio. Bruckner combines an almost eerie atmosphere, such as we know from Mendelssohn, with threatening utterances from the brass; the listener must have a good sense of humour to be reminded of country dances. The Trio, with its sharply contrasting rhythm, is characterised by the distant sound of natural horn motifs, reminiscent of German forest romanticism à la Weber and Mendelssohn. The Finale provides sharp dynamic contrasts; particularly striking is the contrast between the emphatically propulsive, almost breathless impulses and the dreamy song of the second theme in the strings, as though from another time.
The absence of sacred metaphysics does not necessarily make the Sixth a “Swiss symphony”. The influences of Mendelssohn are, on the whole, marginal. The fact that Bruckner never expressed negative opinions about Mendelssohn is remarkable, however. He admired much about his North German predecessor and regarded him as a grand master whose importance was beyond question. Bruckner was not a pre-fascist. His appropriation by the Nazis is just as scandalous as the banning of Mendelssohn’s music.
Riccardo Chailly, born in 1953, studied at the conservatories in Perugia, Rome and Milan, and attended master classes with Franco Ferrara in Siena. At the age of 20, he became assistant to Claudio Abbado at La Scala in Milan. After his debut at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London 1979, commitments followed with internationally renowned companies such as the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Bavarian State Opera and Zurich Opera. Riccardo Chailly also gave concerts with the world’s leading orchestras and performed at the Salzburg Easter Festival and the Lucerne Festival. From 1982 to 1989 he was chief conductor of the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (now the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin), and from 1982 to 1985, he was principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In the period from 1986 to 1993 Riccardo Chailly, who has received many international awards, was music director of the Teatro Comunale Bologna. From 1988 to 2004 he headed the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, and also conducted the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi (1999 – 2005) before taking up office as the 19th Gewandhauskapellmeister in Leipzig in September 2005. He has conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker on many occasions since his debut in 1980, most recently at the traditional end of season concert in the Waldbühne in August 2011, with a programme which included works by Dmitri Shostakovich, Nino Rota and Ottorino Respighi.