Many works of 19th-century French and German composers were inspired by wild Scotland. Even the English thought of the far north of their United Kingdom as a foreign land, a mysterious and romantic place of crags and caves, rocky mountains and empty valleys, all shrouded in rain and mist, a home only for rough men in strange costume talking the unintelligible language of the ancient Celts. Many artists, writers, and musicians traveled there as cultural tourists looking for inspiration and a new experience much as Harvard and Yale grads of the time sought to experience the American wild west. Felix Mendelssohn’s trips to Scotland inspired several works, including The Hebrides overture and his Symphony No. 3, the Scottish symphony. In an earlier symphony (even though it is numbered No. 4) Mendelssohn portrayed his impressions of another wild and primitive country at the other extreme of Europe: Italy; sunny, warm, and erotic, but at least the birth place of the Roman Empire.
What is particularly Scottish about this symphony? If it came through the radio in your car or was randomly selected on your Spotify playlist, would you say to yourself, “This must be something about Scotland?” Probably not. In correspondence back to Germany during his Scottish travels, Mendelssohn mentions Scotland’s violent political history: think Macbeth and Mary Queen of Scots. He rhapsodizes about the “the mists and melancholy” and the frequent execrable weather (in July), bad even for someone born in the German north. He attended a bagpipe festival where red-bearded players with bare knees dressed up in tartans and plaids marched passed a ruined castle. In the music of this symphony, however, we don’t hear bagpipers marching or violent political assassinations or even the famous rhythmic feature of Scottish folk music, the “Scotch snap.” There is, though, much that is brooding and dark and something sounding like a festival of some sort on a rare sunny day. So rather than an auditory depiction of what Mendelssohn saw in Scotland, he paints in sound the mood and the spirit that he found there, the music conveying more how he felt than what he saw.