Program Notes

Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 11

By Felix Mendelssohn

Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, Felix Mendelssohn composed twelve symphonies for strings alone—possibly at the request of his teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, who may have intended them as composition exercises. As Mendelssohn biographer R. Larry Todd points out, “The archaic genre of the string symphony, use of the obsolescent continuo, reliance on monothematic sonata form and baroque “spinning out” of the thematic material all reflect Zelter's conservative guidance. And the eighteenth-century antecedents of the sinfonie—admixtures of C. P. E. and J. S. Bach, Mozart, and Haydn—also betray the teacher's taste.” Mendelssohn completed the Symphony No. 1 on March 31, 1824, and the work's premiere took place in November of that same year at a private gathering in honor of his sister Fanny's 19th birthday. While the occasion sounds quaint, these were no ordinary domestic music gatherings. The Mendelssohn family was extremely influential, and as 19th-century theorists A. B. Marx and Heinrich Dorn reported, members of the elite royal orchestra showed up at their home to perform these youthful works. While Mendelssohn’s string symphonies were ultimately forgotten until long after his death, they provide a fascinating window into his musical training and early musical experiences.

Mendelssohn dedicated the Symphony No. 1 to the Philharmonic Society, which gave the London premiere on May 25, 1829, with the composer himself on the podium. (Mendelssohn arranged the scherzo of his famous Octet as an alternative to the Menuetto for the occasion.) Despite Mendelssohn’s youth, his first symphony was well-received, according to The Harmonicon:

... though only about one or two-and twenty years of age, [Mendelssohn] has already produced several works of magnitude, which, if at all to be compared with the present, ought, without such additional claim, to rank him among the first composers of the age…Fertility of invention and novelty of effect, are what first strike the hearers of M. Mendelssohn's symphony; but at the same time, the melodiousness of its subjects, the vigour with which these are supported, the gracefulness of the slow movement, the playfulness of some parts, and the energy of others, are all felt...The author conducted it in person, and it was received with acclamations.

Program notes by © Jennifer More 2024