Thursday 14 May

Symphony No 3

© Mark Allan

© Mark Allan

We hope that you enjoy this broadcast from our archives, recorded in March 2015.

Tonight's programme

Mendelssohn Overture: The Hebrides, 'Fingal's Cave'
Schumann Piano Concerto
Mendelssohn Symphony No 3, 'Scottish'

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conductor
Maria João Pires piano
London Symphony Orchestra

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Felix Mendelssohn
Overture: The Hebrides Op 26, 'Fingal's Cave'

With his meticulous craftsmanship and formal balance, Mendelssohn stands as one of the most Classically-inclined of the major 19th-century composers, yet he was also prone to moments of Romantic spontaneity. This was certainly the case when he visited Scotland with a friend in the summer of 1829: in July they were at Holyrood Palace and Mendelssohn was getting ideas for a symphony; on 7 August a visit to the Western Isles had the composer writing home that ‘in order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides have affected me, I have written down the following which came into my mind’. ‘The following’ was the opening ten bars of the Hebrides overture.

But this was a holiday, and Mendelssohn was not in Scotland to write music. The day after his letter he took a boat trip to the Isle of Staffa ‘with its strange basalt pillars and caverns’, and it was not for another year and a half that he completed his Hebridean work (in Rome!), entitling it Die einsame Insel (The Lonely Isle). Revisions followed – Mendelssohn, fighting to reconcile the Classical and the Romantic, was worried that it tasted ‘more of counterpoint than of train oil, seagulls and salt cod’ – and the version of the overture as we know it now, with its dual title of Die Hebriden (The Hebrides) and Fingalshöhle (Fingal’s Cave, after Staffa’s best-known landmark) only emerged in 1832.

Fingal's Cave, the Isle of Staffa landmark which inspired the Hebrides overture, is fully illuminated by the sun for only one day a year (when the sun is at 5.6 degrees above the horizon): 16 December. Incidentally, this is the overture’s date of completion, as marked by Mendelssohn on the original manuscript.


Mendelssohn’s original thematic idea remained as the work’s opening, its gently rolling melodic outline and atmospheric accompaniment surely conjuring as instant a vision of the sea as its composer could have hoped for. Its melancholy falling six-note motif dominates the ten-minute work, a warm and shapely rising second theme first heard on cellos and bassoons notwithstanding, and undergoes a number of mood-changes. A storm blows up briefly in the central development section, but calm is soon restored, especially in the second theme’s restful return on clarinet, before the coda raises a final squall, again quickly quieted.

Note by Lindsay Kemp

Lindsay Kemp is a senior producer for BBC Radio 3, including programming lunchtime concerts at Wigmore Hall and LSO St Luke’s. He is also Artistic Advisor to York Early Music Festival, Artistic Director of Baroque at the Edge Festival and a regular contributor to Gramophone magazine.

Image: Fingal's Cave by Thomas Moran, 1884

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn was the grandson of the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and son of an influential German banker. Born into a privileged, upper middle-class family, as a boy he was encouraged to study the piano, taught to draw by his mother and became an accomplished linguist and classical scholar.

Portrait of composer Felix Mendelssohn

In 1819 he began composition studies with Karl Friedrich Zelter. His family’s wealth allowed their home in Berlin to become a refuge for scholars, artists, writers and musicians. The philosopher Hegel and scientist Humboldt were among regular visitors, and members of the Court Orchestra and eminent soloists were available to perform the latest works by Felix or his older sister Fanny. Young Mendelssohn’s twelve string symphonies were first heard in the intimate setting of his father’s salon.

Mendelssohn’s maturity as a composer was marked by his Octet (1825) and concert overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826). In 1829 Mendelssohn revived Bach’s St Matthew Passion exactly one hundred years after its first performance. Soon after, a trip to London and the Scottish highlands and islands inspired the overture, The Hebrides. In 1830 he travelled to Italy at the suggestion of Goethe and whilst in Rome started his so-called 'Scottish' and 'Italian' symphonies.

In 1835 he was appointed conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, greatly expanding its repertoire with early music and works of his own, including the E minor Violin Concerto. Two years later he married Cecile Jeanrenaud and in 1843 he founded the Leipzig Conservatory. His magnificent biblical oratorio, Elijah, commissioned for and first performed at the 1846 Birmingham Musical Festival, soon gained a place alongside Handel’s Messiah in the affections of British choral societies and their audiences. He died in Leipzig in 1847.

Profile by Andrew Stewart
Andrew Stewart is a freelance music journalist and writer. He is the author of The LSO at 90, and contributes to a wide variety of specialist classical music publications.


Conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Sunday 14 June 2020, 7pm BST

Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night's Dream
conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Robert Schumann
Piano Concerto in A minor Op 54

1. Allegro affettuoso
2. Intermezzo grazioso
3. Allegro vivace

Maria João Pires piano

One of the most impressive features of Schumann’s only Piano Concerto is its remarkable organic unity.

So many ideas in this richly imaginative work stem in one way or another from the lovely first movement’s melody (wind, then solo piano) that follows the concerto’s arresting opening. So it comes as quite a surprise to discover that the concerto was actually written in two separate instalments, and at two very different times in Schumann’s life. The first movement was originally written as a self-sufficient Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra in 1841 – the year that also saw the composition of the First Symphony, the original version of the Fourth, and the orchestral Overture, Scherzo and Finale. Schumann’s long-thwarted marriage to the brilliant concert pianist Clara Wieck the previous year had released a torrent of creativity: the first years of their life together saw the production of some of his finest pieces, often composed at breathtaking speed.

Then, in 1844, after Robert and Clara had returned from a concert tour of Russia, Schumann experienced a crippling mental breakdown, followed by a terrible plunge into depression. At the end of the year he and Clara moved to Dresden with their two children, where gradually Schumann’s spirits began to recover. For a long time he was unable to compose, but by the end of 1845 he completed his Second Symphony, a work which bears powerful witness to his struggles to regain health and stability. And before he started the symphony, Schumann added two more movements to the Fantasie, thus creating his Piano Concerto. How long the ideas for these two movements had been incubating in his mind is impossible to say, but it is certain that the act of putting them to paper was a major step forward on his road to psychological recovery.

The result was one of Schumann’s most daring and romantically delightful works. It is easy to single out innovatory elements: the piano’s striking, downward-plunging opening gesture – after a single incisive chord from the full orchestra – is unlike the beginning of any concerto before. It clearly left a strong impression on the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, who began his famous Piano Concerto (also in A minor) with a strikingly similar gesture. And although Schumann’s first movement appears to be full of melodic ideas, most of these derive directly from the original wind-piano tune – so much so that the movement has been described as 'monothematic', also very unusual for an early 19th-century concerto.


But it is the dream-like quality Schumann brings to this kind of intricate thematic development that is most original. The piano writing may be challenging, but the real challenge is to the player’s poetic imagination rather than his or her virtuosity. Even the first movement’s solo cadenza is more like a meditation than a bravura display. In general the relationship between the piano and the orchestra is neither as one-sided nor as competitive as in most Romantic concertos. Tender intimacy is much more typical. A couple of years before he began the first movement, Schumann had written of his hope that a new kind of 'genius' might soon emerge: one 'who will show us in a newer and more brilliant way how orchestra and piano may be combined, how the soloist, dominant at the keyboard, may unfold the wealth of his instrument and his art, while the orchestra, no longer a mere spectator, may interweave its manifold facets into the scene'. In the Piano Concerto he fulfilled his own prophecy.

The chamber music-like intimacy continues through the gentle Intermezzo Schumann placed as the Concerto’s second movement, and again the way in which one motif seems to unfold from another is achieved with great subtlety and ingenuity. Just before the end of the movement comes a wonderful inspiration. Clarinets and bassoons recall the seminal first phrase of the first movement’s original melody – first in the major key, then in the minor – while the piano adds magical liquid figurations (as though dreamily recalling the Concerto’s arresting opening). Then the finale launches suddenly into an exhilarating, seemingly unstoppable waltz momentum. It is hard to believe that the man who wrote this gloriously alive dance music was at the time emerging from chronic depression. The ending in particular sounds like an outpouring of the purest joy.

Note by Stephen Johnson
Stephen Johnson is the author of Bruckner Remembered (Faber). He also contributes regularly to the BBC Music Magazine, and broadcasts for BBC Radio 3 (Discovering Music), Radio 4 and the World Service.

Robert Schumann

The youngest son of a Saxon bookseller, Robert Schumann was encouraged by his father to study music. Soon after his tenth birthday in 1820, young Robert began taking piano lessons in his home town of Zwickau.

Portrait of composer Robert Schumann

Although Schumann enrolled as a law student at Leipzig University in 1828, music remained an overriding passion and he continued to study piano with Friedrich Wieck. The early death of his father and two of his three brothers influenced Schumann’s appreciation of the world’s suffering, intensified further by his readings of Romantic poets such as Novalis, Byron and Hölderlin and his own experiments as poet and playwright. Schumann composed a number of songs in his youth, but it was not until he fell in love with and became secretly engaged to the teenage Clara Wieck in September 1837 that he seriously began to exploit his song-writing gift. Besides welcoming the financial return that published lieder (songs) could deliver, Schumann was also able to preserve his intense feelings for Clara in the richly expressive medium of song.

The personal nature of Schumann’s art even influenced his choice of certain themes, with the notes A – B – E – G – G enshrined as the theme of one set of piano variations in tribute to his friend Countess Meta von Abegg. Schumann also developed his skills as a composer of symphonies and concertos during his years in Leipzig. Four years after their marriage in September 1840, the Schumanns moved to Dresden where Robert completed his C major Symphony.

In the early 1850s the composer’s health and mental state seriously declined. In March 1854 he decided to enter a sanatorium near Bonn, where he died two years later.

Profile by Stephen Johnson


The 'Scottish' Symphony in brief

Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony was, like the Hebrides overture, inspired by his visit to Scotland. In 1829, Mendelssohn came to Britain for a series of concert engagements in London, and afterwards embarked on a walking tour of Scotland. The initial idea for the Symphony apparently struck him while visiting the dramatic ruins of the palace of Holyrood, which he explored shortly before visiting ‘Fingal’s Cave’ on the island of Staffa (the place which inspired the Hebrides overture). The latter was completed the following year, but the ‘Scottish’ Symphony was set aside for some time. It became the last of Mendelssohn’s symphonies to be completed – only in 1842.

Image: Holyrood Palace

Felix Mendelssohn
Symphony No 3 in A minor Op 56, 'Scottish'

1. Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato – Assai animato – Andante come prima
2. Vivace non troppo
3. Adagio
4. Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai

Although Mendelssohn never relinquished his concern for formal clarity and balance, he was not afraid to push at the envelope and, within certain limits, be innovative; indeed his instrumental compositions are those of a man constantly questing for new solutions to problems inherent in existing forms. But as we have already heard tonight, he was not immune to extra-musical stimuli; brought up in a cultured family environment, from an early age he drew musical inspiration from Shakespeare and Goethe, and from landscape, legend and history. Perhaps few among his works accommodate the competing compositional interests of formal logic and evocative pictorialism more comfortably than the ‘Scottish’ Symphony.

Its inspiration lies in one of the great obsessions of the early Romantic imagination: the grey mists and mountains of Scotland. Mendelssohn himself had read Walter Scott, and would also have known the faked bardic poems of ‘Ossian’, so it is not hard to guess the kind of atmosphere he was looking for when he first arrived at Holyrood at the start of his Scottish holiday. He found it too. After visiting the ruined royal palace he wrote to his family:

'In the deepening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved … The nearby chapel is now roofless, overgrown with grass and ivy, and at the broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything is broken and decayed, and the bright sky shines in. I believe that today I have found the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.'

Few symphonies have their moment of inspiration so precisely recorded, yet having sketched the opening bars Mendelssohn set this one aside, and it was left to the Hebrides overture to stand as his most immediate response to the Scottish experience. By then he had fallen under another picturesque influence, caused by a visit to Italy which, he said, made it ‘impossible to return to my misty Scottish mood’; another symphony, the ‘Italian’ (No 4) now occupied him, and it was not until 1842 that he finally completed the ‘Scottish’.


The Symphony opens with a lengthy slow introduction in which the Holyrood theme conjures gloomy and romantic tones, and it is largely on a restlessly lilting transformation of this that the subsequent main body of the movement is based – indeed, several of the themes which occur in later movements are related to this opening theme. Throughout the first movement stormy episodes (reminders of rough seas and bad weather no doubt) mingle with calmer passages, but despite the opportunities presented by a robust central development section, it is in the long coda that the tempest really breaks. The movement ends, however, with an atmospheric return to the music of the introduction.


Mendelssohn indicated that the four movements of the ‘Scottish’ should be played without a break, and thus it is that the scherzo-like second creeps in almost before you can notice it. This is the most overtly ‘Scottish’ music of the whole symphony, but its presence is brief, and soon we find ourselves in the Adagio, a yearningly beautiful movement in which a wistful song-melody is several times beset by passages of Schubertian menace before ultimately winning through, relatively unscathed.


Mendelssohn gave the finale an additional performance indication of ‘Allegro guerriero’ – fast and warlike – and if it does not seem to be exactly battle music, we can suppose that it reflects memories of another sight that impressed him, that of Highlanders in resplendent costume. The movement is full of ingeniously contrasted and combined themes, but the composer chooses to end not with a grand swirling climax, but rather, having slowed the music down, with a final, warmly comforting transformation of the ‘Holyrood’ theme. Thus, for all the work’s conscious Scottish-isms, formal coherence is effortlessly maintained.

Note by Lindsay Kemp


Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Mendelssohn Symphonies Nos 1 to 5

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Mendelssohn Symphonies Nos 1 to 5

Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Sir John Eliot Gardiner stands as an international leader in today's musical life, respected as one of the world's most innovative and dynamic musicians, constantly at the forefront of enlightened interpretation. His work as Artistic Director of his Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique has marked him out as a central figure in the early music revival and a pioneer of historically informed performance. As a regular guest of the world's leading symphony orchestras, including the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic, Gardiner conducts repertoire from the 17th to the 20th century.

The extent of Gardiner's repertoire is illustrated in the extensive catalogue of award-winning recordings with his own ensembles and leading orchestras including the Vienna Philharmonic on major labels (including Decca, Philips, Erato and 30 recordings for Deutsche Grammophon), as wide-ranging as Mozart, Schumann, Berlioz, Elgar and Kurt Weill, in addition to works by Renaissance and Baroque composers. Since 2005, the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras have recorded on their independent label, Soli Deo Gloria, established to release the live recordings made during Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000, for which he received Gramophone's 2011 Special Achievement Award and a Diapason d'or de l'année 2012. His many recording accolades include two Grammy awards and he has received more Gramophone Awards than any other living artist.

Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras perform regularly at the world's major venues and festivals, including Salzburg, Berlin and Lucerne festivals, Lincoln Center and the BBC Proms, where Gardiner has performed over 60 times since his debut in 1968. In 2017, he celebrated the 450th anniversary of the birth of Monteverdi with Benvenuto Cellini, for which they were awarded the RPS Music Award and Gardiner named Conductor of the Year at the Opernwelt Awards. Last season, they also toured together to Carnegie Hall, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, Teatro alla Scala and Vienna Musikverein. Gardiner has conducted operas at the Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Opéra national de Paris and Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where he has appeared regularly since his debut in 1973 and returned last season for Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. From 1983 to 1988 he was artistic director of Opéra de Lyon, where he founded its new orchestra.

Gardiner's book, Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, was published in October 2013 by Allen Lane, and awarded the Prix des Muses award (Singer-Polignac). From 2014 to 2017, Gardiner was the first ever President of the BachArchiv Leipzig. Among numerous awards in recognition of his work, Sir John Eliot Gardiner holds honorary doctorates from the Royal College of Music, New England Conservatory of Music, the universities of Lyon, Cremona, St Andrews and King’s College, Cambridge where he himself studied and is now an Honorary Fellow; he is also an Honorary Fellow of King's College, London and the British Academy, and an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music, who awarded him their prestigious Bach Prize in 2008; he became the inaugural Christoph Wolff Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Harvard University in 2014/15 and was awarded the Concertgebouw Prize in January 2016. Gardiner was made Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 2011, and was given the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2005. In the UK, he was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1990, and awarded a knighthood for his services to music in the 1998 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

Image: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Maria João Pires

Born on 23 July 1944 in Lisbon, Maria João Pires gave her first public performance at the age of four and began her studies of music and piano with Campos Coelho and Francine Benoît, continuing later in Germany, with Rosl Schmid and Karl Engel. In addition to her concerts, she has made recordings for Erato for 15 years and Deutsche Grammophon for 20 years.

Since the 1970s, she has devoted herself to reflecting the influence of art in life, community and education. She has searched for new ways which, respecting the development of individuals and cultures, encourage the sharing of ideas.

In 1999, she created the Belgais Centre for the Study of the Arts in Portugal, where she offers interdisciplinary workshops for professional musicians and music lovers. The Belgais concert hall hosts concerts and recordings, which in future will be shared digitally.

In 2012, in Belgium, she initiated two complementary projects: the Partitura Choirs, a project which develops choirs for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the Partitura Workshops. All of the Partitura projects aim to create an altruistic dynamic between artists of different generations, by proposing an alternative to a world too often focused on competition. This philosophy is being spread worldwide at Partitura projects and workshops.

London Symphony Orchestra © Ranald Mackechnie

London Symphony Orchestra © Ranald Mackechnie

The London Symphony Orchestra was established in 1904 and has a unique ethos. As a musical collective, it is built on artistic ownership and partnership. With an inimitable signature sound, the LSO’s mission is to bring the greatest music to the greatest number of people.

The LSO has been the only Resident Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in the City of London since it opened in 1982, giving 70 symphonic concerts there every year. The Orchestra works with a family of artists that includes some of the world’s greatest conductors – Sir Simon Rattle as Music Director, Principal Guest Conductors Gianandrea Noseda and François-Xavier Roth, and Michael Tilson Thomas as Conductor Laureate.

Through LSO Discovery, it is a pioneer of music education, offering musical experiences to 60,000 people every year at its music education centre LSO St Luke’s on Old Street, across East London and further afield.

The LSO strives to embrace new digital technologies in order to broaden its reach, and with the formation of its own record label LSO Live in 1999 it pioneered a revolution in recording live orchestral music. With a discography spanning many genres and including some of the most iconic recordings ever made the LSO is now the most recorded and listened to orchestra in the world, regularly reaching over 3,500,000 people worldwide each month on Spotify and beyond. The Orchestra continues to innovate through partnerships with market-leading tech companies, as well as initiatives such as LSO Play. The LSO is a highly successful creative enterprise, with 80% of all funding self-generated.

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