Gavin Maloney writes for Culture about Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, which he will conduct as part of RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra Live on Culture Night, Friday 18th September.

‘As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,

Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:

What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?’

from A Toccata of Galuppi’s by Robert Browning

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy arrived in Venice on 10 October 1830. He was vigorous, enthusiastic, and 21 years old. He wrote his parents on arrival, "Italy at last! And what I have all my life considered as the greatest possible felicity is now begun, and I am basking in it." Tours such as Mendelssohn’s were customarily undertaken by upper-class well-educated men (and sometimes women) when they came of age. Venice, Rome and Florence made an indelible impression on the young Mendelssohn. What so moved him? "The remembrance of former splendour", he confided to his sister Fanny.

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The Italian Symphony doesn’t have a programme. Though Mendelssohn was a fine watercolour painter, and his symphonies tend to have accessible titles, he was not primarily in the business of writing descriptive music. This is true even of the incidental music he wrote, to A Midsummer Night’s Dream for example. He was a passionate and erudite man who was taken with all the arts.

During pandemic, the kissing may have stopped, but there is great deal of soul left in Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony.

For all his initial fervour for his symphony, he decided not long after its first performance that he was dissatisfied with it. I have long puzzled over the reasons why. Take the second movement, for example - Andante con moto – whose original opening gestures contain a striking Italianate flourish, and a sad yet serenely-woven melody. Looking at the revised version I am inclined to agree with Fanny. "I do not like the change in first melody at all", she wrote her brother, "why did you make it – to avoid the many As? But the melody was natural and lovely [before]."

The (socially distanced) RTÉ NSO

For Fanny’s sake, this Friday I’ll be conducting the original version, the version you very likely know and love, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. At 7 pm we’ll stream live from the National Concert Hall in Dublin via RTÉ Culture. During pandemic, the kissing may have stopped, but there is great deal of soul left in Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. I hope you’ll join our performance online.

For Culture Night, Friday 18th September, Gavin Maloney and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra bring us on a journey from Romania via Austria to Italy, with works from Bartok, Mozart and Mendelssohn - watch live on RTÉ Culture from 7 pm, or listen live via RTÉ lyric fm.