Mendelssohn in Edinburgh, Scotland
by Robert Broerse
Back in April, my mother and I had the opportunity to visit Edinburgh, Scotland for the first time. We had never visited the city or the country before. It was a dream of my mother’s.
While wandering the old town, we encountered the Sir Walter Scott Memorial and we visited the Writer’s Museum. We hiked up Calton Hill to get a view of the city. We saw the National Gallery and all the beautiful paintings inside. Overall, the weather was a little on the chilly side – 6 degrees in the sun (when there was sunlight). But for a Canadian expatriate it was perfectly fine. (Not so much for my mother… she needed a woolen cap – or toque in Canadian English – to keep her head warm.)
We both found the city lovely. I enjoyed some whisky, a Talisker Single Malt from the Isle of Skye and an Aberlour from Speyside. Both of them complemented my delicious haggis. We went to Usher Hall to see the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra play. It was a wonderful cultural experience.
When I returned from my holidays, I went through my classical musical library. I remembered that the Leipzig-based composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) had composed a Scottish Symphony. Had the great musician visited Edinburgh?
It turns out, he had.
To start, back in the summer of 1829, Mendelssohn was in Great Britain. After a gruelling concert series in London, he wanted to relax. And what better way to relax than a walking tour of Scotland with his good friend, Karl Klingemann? Klingemann was a friend from Berlin who at that time worked as Secretary to the Hanoverien Legation.
On their walking tour, the two men wrote many letters to friends and family. They provide us a wonderful picture of their journey. They visited such cities and places as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth, Inverness, Loch Lomond, Iona, Mull, and Staffa.
(It might be a surprise to discover, that during the trip, Mendelssohn actually disliked the sound of the bagpipes.)
Yet, in late July, they found themselves in Edinburgh. In a letter dated July 28th, Mendelssohn describes climbing Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano outside the city.
On the last night of their visit, the two men visited Holyrood Palace. Mendelssohn knew from his fellow countryman, Friedrich Schiller of the tragic death of Mary Queen of Scots and the gruesome murder of her secretary, David Rizzio. Rizzio was accussed of impregnating the queen. The price he paid: 56 stab wounds at the hands of rebels.
Mendelssohn certainly felt something. In a letter he wrote that evening:
„ln der tiefen Dämmerung gingen wir heut nach dem Palaste, wo Königin Maria gelebt und geliebt hat…. Der Kapelle daneben fehlt nun das Dach…. Es ist alles zerbrochen, morsch und der heitere Himmel scheint hinein. Ich glaube, ich habe heute da den Anfang meiner Schottischen Symphonie gefunden.“
(In the deepening twilight today we went to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved… The chapel below was missing its roof…. Everything lies in ramshackle ruins while above, the heavens shine through. I believe, I found in this place the beginnings of my Scottish symphony.
Steeped in the dark atmosphere, he wrote down the first sixteen bars of his new symphony.
He continued on his walking tour. The two men still had a literary legend to encounter. They hoped to meet Sir Walter Scott in Abbotsford on the River Tweed. Though I had seen the statue of Scott in Edinburgh, a sour and surly figure that sits on a marble chair, Mendelssohn and his friend met the real man. And there was not much of a difference between the statue and the man, as it turns out! As Mendelssohn, reported, he found the famed writer of historical novels on the grouchy side and distracted. It was a less than pleasant visit.
Overall, it was a wonderful trip but the Scottish Symphony had to wait.
In 1841, Mendelssohn returned to the symphony and when it was finished, he dedicated it to his two new friends, Queen Victoria and her consort, Albert.
Today, as I sip my Glenlivet Whisky, and listen to the opening bars of the symphony, I think of Mendelssohn’s trip. You can feel the gloominess, the somber atmosphere that the composer wanted to evoke. In the opening phrases, the woodwinds create a feeling of dismal unease. You can feel the dark, summer wind flowing in from the roofless chapel.
There is also this melancholy passion. As the strings begin to swell, the sad history of Mary Queen of Scots and her murdered secretary come to mind. The music begins with a mortuary air. But all is not doom and gloom. Movement by the movement, the symphony becomes cheerful. As Robert Schuman wrote of his friend’s work, “We consider [the symphony] most poetic – like an evening corresponding to a lovely morning.”
Check out the live performance featuring Sinfonica de Galicia conducted by British conductor, Rumon Gamba. They do a wonderful job of the Scottish Symphony.
If you want to read about royalty vising the Mendelssohnhaus, check out Scott’s post about meeting Prince Charles.
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