Soul-searching far, far away from home

The seashore of Scotland has been an inspiring place for composers and writers alike. © Charles Thibo
The seashore of Scotland has been an inspiring place for composers and writers alike. © Charles Thibo

I love Scotland. That’s a fact. Especially the Orkney Islands. I love the rough beauty of its landscape, I love its rich Nordic cultural heritage,  its fascinating neolithic and Bronze Age settlements, its intricate history of kings and queens and finally the fact that it is far, far away from home. Not necessarily in a geographical way. I’m rather speaking of the way of life.

“Slow down!”, sings the Scottish rock singer Amy Macdonald in one of her songs. In Scotland, I slow down. I enjoy the solitude and the peace. A perfect place for soul-searching! I spent many vacations exploring the Orkneys, the Stirling area and what used to be the Kingdom of Fife. I met fascinating people, backpackers like me, from all over the world in the youth hostels, fell in love with a most wonderful girl from Perth, Australia, and got rescued once after a hike in awful weather by the daughter of a local farmer! That unconditional hospitality I will never forget.

Mendelssohn in Scotland

And with my fascination, I am in good company. One of the first trips the German composer Felix Mendelssohn made, took him to Scotland. He stayed there for a couple of weeks in 1829 after having visited London and composed the overture “The Hebrides”, that we have already dealt with, and his Symphony No. 3 Op. 56 that he called “The Scottish”. He stopped working on it around 1831, picked up the work in 1841 and had it published in January 1824.

However, there is a third piece connected at least by name to Scotland, a fantasy (for piano) that Mendelssohn called “Scottish Sonata” Op. 28. It was written as early as 1828, before he got to Scotland, and was only published in 1833, when Mendelssohn suppressed the title. The fantasy’s earlier name remains justified as it is partly inspired by a Scottish folk song. Such songs were quite popular in Europe during the Romantic era.

Visiting Holyrood Chapel

While the “Scottish Sonata” is a lovely piano piece, it doesn’t inspire me much. Mendelssohn’s “Scottish Symphony” however is simply marvellous. Critics have said that there is nothing Scottish about that symphony, but I take the liberty to identify … let’s say, echos of Mendelssohn’s stay in Scotland.

The first movement, according to the composer inspired by a visit of the Holyrood Chapel in Edinburg, seems to evoke the past glory of Scotland’s monarchs with the emphasis on past, while the second movement clearly starts with a folk tune that I have heard in Scotland myself, performed by pipes. Such a delight! The fourth movement opens with a martial tune, and I can imagine Scottish troops marching into the battle against the English. In the fifth and final movement, Mendelssohn jumps back to the opening of the first movement, but in a different pitch, a move that confers the whole symphony a nobility suited for kings and queens.

There is an excellent recording of the fantasy by Howard Shelley, the well-known pianist and expert in performing Romantic music. It is also available on Spotify, performed however by a different artist. Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 has been recorded in an outstanding way by Roger Norrington and the Stuttgart Radio-Sinfonieorchester des SWR.

During my research for this post, I stumbled over a curious internet site, dedicated exclusively to Mendelssohn’s visit in Scotland. Have a look.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.

4 thoughts on “Soul-searching far, far away from home”

  1. I am a lover of Mendelsohn too and I feel the Scottish influence in the music you mention. I am glad you were helped when you got lost in bad weather. I tried the same this “summer” in the area of Hadrians Wall

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