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Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”)

Op. 56,
Arranged for piano, 4 hands
(Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, [1843])

Irving S. Gilmore Music Library
symphony number 3 title page

Robert Schumann was famous not only as a composer, but also as a critic. In 1843, he reviewed the score of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3. He had heard third-hand that Mendelssohn had begun this symphony during a trip to Rome, and he described how the music "places us under Italian skies." Alas, Schumann (or perhaps his informant) was mistaken; the symphony in question was not the "Italian"—which would be published posthumously as No. 4—but the "Scottish." (It is not especially helpful to identify these symphonies by their key, because the third symphony begins in A minor and ends in A major, while the fourth does just the reverse.)

Many commentators have discerned all manner of Scottish characteristics in its style, but recent research by Thomas Schmidt-Beste casts doubt on this interpretation. Schmidt-Beste points out that the nickname "Scottish" did not gain currency until after Mendelssohn’s death. He argues that the symphony’s only connection to Scotland is that Mendelssohn happened to begin work on it during a Scottish trip in 1829; there is scant documentary evidence to support more elaborate stories about its picturesque origins or programmatic meaning. Be that as it may, this symphony does have one other irrefutable connection to Great Britain: its dedication to Queen Victoria.

Until the rise of sound recordings, symphonies were routinely published in arrangements for piano, four hands. The task of making these arrangements was often delegated to low-paid hacks (many of them aspiring composers), but Mendelssohn took the trouble to make his own arrangement of this symphony.