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Mendelssohn in Edinburgh

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.

Whisky in Schottland

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.

Bagpipe player Scotland

(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.

back in April                          schon in April                                        while wandering                    beim Flanieren

to encounter                          begegnen                                               to hike up                               hinaufwandern

overall                                    insgesamt                                              little on the chilly side            ein bischen Kalt

Canadian ex-patriate             im Ausland lebender Kanadier              woolen cap                             Wollmütze

to complement                       etwas ergänzen                                     to go through                         durchgehen

it turns out,…                         Wie sich gezeigt hat,…                           gruelling                                mörderisch

extinct                                    erloschen                                                gruesome                               grausam

to be accused                         wegen etwas angeklagt sein                 to impregnate                        schwägern

to pay a price                         teuer für etwas bezahlen müssen          at the hands of                       durch Hand

steeped                                  eingeweicht                                           bar (music)                            Takt

sour                                        bitter                                                      surly                                       missmutig

figure                                     Gestalt                                                   on the grouchy side                griesgrämig

distracted                                abgelenkt                                               to dedicate                             einweihen

consort                                   Gemahl                                                  to sip                                      schlürfen

gloominess                             Düsterheit                                              somber                                   traurig

to evoke                                 hervorrufen                                           woodwinds                            Holzblasinstrumente

dismal                                    düster                                                    unease                                   Unruhe

to swell (music)                      anschwellen                                          come to mind                         einem einfallen

mortuary air                          Totenluft                                                doom and gloom                    Finsternis

cheeful                                   fröhlich                                                  consider                                 bedenken

corresponding to                    zugehörig zu