We look at the artistically fertile travels the composer took around Europe as a young man and how they spawned some of his best-loved works.

Today young people tour Europe and get a general cultural education through the customary Interrail trip, and in the early 1830s young Felix Mendelssohn was just the same, with carriages and boats instead of trains. And instead of coming back with a phone full of Instagram-worthy holiday snaps, during his years of continental travel between 1829 and 1832 he came back with the ideas for some of his finest compositions.

The British Isles

At the suggestion of his father the young composer set off for the England in spring 1829. Arriving seasick in London after an 11-day transit from Hamburg (hardly a Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) it was an inauspicious beginning to his relationship with the country where he would find some of his most vocal supporters. With Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey in his mind, he resolved to record his experience in letters. “London is the grandest and most complicated monster on the earth,” Mendelssohn wrote to his father. “Things roll and whirl around me and carry me along as though in a vortex.” Though while London was full of conducting opportunities, he found much artistic inspiration north of the border. In Edinburgh the ruined Holyrood chapel was particularly impressive: “Everything around is broken and moldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I have found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish symphony.” These initial sketches, however, would not be fully realised until the completion of his Third Symphony 11 years later. A visit to the wild western island of Staffa proved influential in the composition of his Hebrides Overture, though he actually began writing the theme for the piece the day before his visit (see the Hebrides Overture performed by the Bergen Philharmonic).

At this time Mendelssohn was also mindful of the looming 300th anniversary of Luther’s 1530 Augsburg Confession, an event of central importance in Protestantism. With his own strongly-held Protestant faith, he wanted to commemorate the event musically. But instead of choosing a choral form, he wanted to tell the story of the Reformation by means of the symphony. Leaving Scotland, Mendelssohn travelled to north Wales and it was there, at the bottom of a lead mine he was visiting, that the composer came up with the idea for the work’s ending (he also dreamed up with First String Quartet during the Wales excursion). Though hampered by an injury sustained in a carriage accident in London, the composer was back in Berlin by the end of the year and able to properly set to work on what was to become his Fifth Symphony. Illness set him back, however, and he was not able to complete the piece until May the following year, just one month before the anniversary celebrations and so too late to be included in them. By this time, however, Mendelssohn’s wanderlust was calling again.

Down to Italy

Despite an offer of a teaching position at Berlin University, the composer headed south for Italy in May, stopping off to visit his childhood hero Goethe along the way. The writer’s Italian Journey was no doubt an inspiration for Mendelssohn’s trip, but their meeting was a little more fraught than the one they’d had when Mendelssohn was a child, the composer later describing the writer as being like “an old lion who wants to go to sleep.” Once in Italy, Mendelssohn’s impressions of the local culture were mixed. In Venice, he immersed himself in Renaissance painting, but on the whole his musical experiences were disappointing, as he later complained: “I have not heard a single note worth remembering.” He was scathing about the music scene in Naples, and things were apparently even worse in Rome – the orchestras were shoddy, the papal singers untalented and the tradition of Catholic liturgical music generally impenetrable to Mendelssohn. He did, however, find satisfaction in creating manuscripts of the work of the Renaissance composer Palestrina and a meeting with Berlioz provided a chance to get to know one of his contemporaries, though one cut from a much different cloth. The bohemian and musically radical figure of the French composer contrasted greatly with Mendelssohn’s refined manner, yet the composers took to each other. Mendelssohn’s feelings about the Symphonie fantastique were slightly less warm, however. One felt like “washing your hands after handling one of his scores,” Mendelssohn sniffed, and he summed up the hallucinatory themes of Berlioz’s symphony curtly: “An artist goes to a ball… then all the instruments have a hangover and vomit music.”

Perhaps because of the perceived lack of inspiring musical experiences to be had in Italy, Mendelssohn turned to his own imagination and set to work on another symphony. Despite his cultural gripes he nevertheless found his travels in Italy “to be the supreme joy in life”, and accordingly he set to work on a piece that would contrast with the “mists and melancholy” of his Scotland-inspired works. “It will be the jolliest piece I have ever done,” he enthused to his sister Fanny, “especially the last movement.” The sprightly themes and kinetic rhythms of what would become his Fourth Symphony certainly do contrast with the more foreboding tones of works like the Hebrides Overture, reflecting the optimistic outlook of a young man enjoying life in welcoming southern European climes. And while he may have sniffed at Italian music in his letters, the fourth movement of the symphony bears all the hallmarks of local Neapolitan folk dance styles like the saltarello. While he worked on the Fourth furiously during early 1831, what was later nicknamed his “Italian” symphony remained unfinished for another 2 years. 

Further travels

After Italy came hiking in Switzerland, and then it was on to Paris. It was not long since the French July Revolution of 1830, but Mendelssohn nevertheless found the city full of musical talent. There he met Chopin, the opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer and a 19-year-old Franz Liszt. As he had with Berlioz, Mendelssohn found Liszt’s compositions too unusual for his tastes, but he was impressed with how the young pianist sight-read his recently-composed Piano Concerto no. 1.

During a brief trip to England, where his “Italian” symphony was gaining in popularity, Mendelssohn got word that his violin teacher had died. Eduard Rietz, a conductor, was only 29 when he passed away, and Mendelssohn had dedicated his String Octet to him as a birthday present 7 years previously. Returning to Paris, the composer tried hard to get his “Reformation” Symphony performed, but the Conservatoire orchestra rejected to its use of counterpoint and refused to play it. It was time to go home.

Back in Berlin, the work finally got its première at the Singakademie, where Mendelssohn conducted the performance himself. For the first time, the audience was exposed to Mendelssohn’s symphonic approach to Lutheran tradition. At the start of the work, the melody from Luther’s hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” is heard in a polyphonic style influenced by the composer’s study of Palestrina, only to resurface triumphantly in the finale. The Fifth is a stark proclamation of Mendelssohn’s faith, representing what he saw as the triumph of Protestantism, and its roots lie in the European travels he took as a young man.

You can watch concert videos of Mendelssohn's music on demand.