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While the nicknames of many musical works were added after their creation (and often not even by the composers themselves), in the case of Mendelssohn the subtitles given to particular pieces of music were both wholly intentional and immediately revealing.
Two of his earlier works – the Scottish Symphony and the Hebrides Overture – were both directly inspired by scenes north of the border, and his Symphony No.4 is a musical postcard home from Italy.
Soon after the young composer’s first visit to Britain, he headed off to Italy as part of the same European tour. The buoyant and optimistic mood within which the work immediately begins bears all the hallmarks of a happy man, eager to make his mark on the world and express his travels through music.
On one level, however, the Italian Symphony is not particularly Italian. Not for Mendelssohn the continuous use of local folk songs or musical traditions; instead, the work is much more an expression of how Italy made him feel. Indeed, it’s not until the final movement – some twenty minutes into the symphony – that we first hear a genuinely Italian music motif, in this case the sound of a national peasant dance.
Illustration: Mark Millington