Mendelssohn and the Philharmonic Society

The 1844 performances under Mendelssohn’s leadership were greatly in demand – Queen Victoria attended on 10 June.

Mendelssohn first visited England in 1829. He chose the Philharmonic concert of 25 May for his first appearance in public, conducting from the piano a performance of his Symphony no. 1 in C minor (op. 11). In place of the symphony’s original third movement he arranged the Scherzo from his string Octet for orchestra – including wind parts – especially for this concert. Although he did not return immediately, the symphony was repeated in 1830, and the overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream was also given its first Philharmonic performance that season.

He was back at the Philharmonic in 1833, 1842, 1844 – in which year he conducted the last five of the eight concerts of the season, and appeared for the last time late in April 1847. His music gained a firm place in the repertory during these years, and he was immensely popular with Philharmonic audiences. The five concerts he conducted in 1844 came at a time when the Society was moving towards employing a permanent conductor.

Throughout this period, in Germany as well as when in London, Mendelssohn maintained a close relationship with the Society, alerting us to new or unjustly neglected works by many other composers (notably – but unsuccessfully – with Schubert’s Ninth Symphony), and recommending and commenting on artists. And, of course, he provided new works of his own, on occasion in response to commissions, as with the ‘Italian’ Symphony, whose first performance he directed with the Philharmonic in 1833.

The printed programme card for Mendelssohn’s first concert describes his Symphony no. 1 as ‘never performed’. This was strictly true only for this country; he had already performed the piece – though with its original Minuet and Trio rather than with the Scherzo from the Octet – in Germany.

Immediately after that concert Mendelssohn presented the autograph manuscript of the symphony, complete with both the old and new third movement, to the Society and dedicated the work to us. Curiously, though the dedication appears on the title page, he reverted to the original third movement when it was published. The Society, however, retained the Scherzo derived from the Octet, and evidently performed the symphony in this form for the rest of the century. The opening page of the last movement is shown here (BL, RPS MS 109).

When Weber had been made the first Honorary Member of the Philharmonic Society in 1826 it had required the temporary suspension of the complex laws governing membership. These were later revised to make specific provision for honorary membership, and Mendelssohn was the first to be elected, in the late autumn of 1829. Six of the Society’s founder members were among those to sign the recommendation for his election (BL, RPS MS 315).

The overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream did not receive its first Philharmonic performance until the following season, at the concert of 1 March 1830, conducted by Sir George Smart. But when the composer heard it in later years, he was especially pleased by the Philharmonic orchestra’s playing of the filigree string figures. The First Symphony was also played as part of the 1830 season.

The overture Fingal’s Cave (performed as The Isles of Fingal) was among the new works Mendelssohn brought to London in 1832. He also appeared as soloist in his own First Piano Concerto. At the end of the season he presented the Society with a score of the overture (now, alas, lost), and we reciprocated by voting him ‘a piece of plate’. It took the form of a ‘standish’, or writing set, with full garniture; the tray is engraved with an inscription composed for the occasion by William Dance. (The writing set is now in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin).

At a General Meeting late in 1832 Mendelssohn was commissioned to write ‘a Symphony, an Overture, and a Vocal Piece’ for this Society (general minute book, BL, RPS MS 275). This produced the ‘Italian’ Symphony, the ‘Trumpet’ overture in C (op. 94 – a revision of an earlier work), perhaps also the overture Fair Melusine, and the soprano scena and aria, later much revised, now known to us as ‘Infelice’. The ‘Italian’ and the first overture were both played during the 1833 season. Later in this same meeting, and at the two following, the Society decided on more commissions, all from composers who were either British or resident here. The first of them were also completed and delivered in time for the 1833 season to include the first performances of no fewer than seven works specially written for the Society.

Mendelssohn revised many of his works after their early performances, often making radical changes. From the beginning he expressed himself unhappy with the ‘Italian’ Symphony, and later revised all but the first movement (with which he apparently claimed to be most dissatisfied of all). The symphony was not published until after his death, and then it was in its unrevised form. This is how it is still usually played today. The Society had used borrowed materials for its performances after the premiere, between 1834 and 1838. For the 1848 season, the first after the composer’s death, the Directors, finding they had no score of their own, ordered their indefatigable copyist William Goodwin to prepare a new one. Goodwin produced one of his most elegant and florid pieces of copying (BL, RPS MS 112).

The 1844 performances under Mendelssohn’s leadership were greatly in demand – Queen Victoria attended on 10 June. The programmes for Mendelssohn’s concerts combined three main elements, first the by now established older classics, then works which were still at the time neglected (for example pieces by Schubert and J.S. Bach, music by the latter for the first time ever at the concerts), and finally his own compositions. The programme of his last concert, on 8 July, included the first British performance of his own cantata The First Walpurgis Night (op. 60). Mendelssohn took advantage of the presence of a chorus and vocal soloists also to give excerpts from Beethoven’s incidental music for Kotzebue’s play The Ruins of Athens – four vocal and choral numbers and the Turkish March, all new to the London audience.

The last letter from Mendelssohn preserved in the Society’s archive is dated 27 August 1847. It is a little more formal than some of his earlier correspondence with the Society – a new Secretary had just taken over from William Watts, with whom he had dealt on so many earlier occasions. But his complaint at the ‘hurry and trouble’ of his life is especially poignant in light of his death, at the age of only 38, the following November (BL, RPS MS 355).

Arthur Searle
RPS Honorary Librarian (1983-2019)

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