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Alia Vox 


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Author: Jordi Savall 

An exceptional traveller in search of light and joy


The fact that the young Mendelssohn’s first major solo trip at the age of 21 began with a visit to Goethe in Weimar allows us to imagine that the journey he undertook to his long-awaited discovery of Italy was inspired by the one Goethe had made to that country forty-five years earlier, which he recounted in his Italian Journey (Italienische Reise). What he writes about the visit at the end of his first letter dated 21 May 1830 is both enlightening and deeply moving: “I would have to be a fool to regret the time that I spent with him. Today, I am to play him some Bach, Haydn and Mozart and take him up to the present day, as he puts it. Besides, I have conscientiously done my job as a traveller.” With these words, he affirms his desire to confront others and the events of the past, as well as the modernity of his own time.


“Mendelssohn had just turned twenty-one, (Abraham-Auguste Rolland tells us in his preface to the first French edition of Mendelssohn’s letters, published in 1864) when his father, a wealthy Berlin banker and a man distinguished as much by his intelligence as his kindheartedness, decided to send him on a trip which would, so to speak, mark the young man’s coming of age. “Go,” he told him, “visit Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France and England; study these different countries and choose, the one you like best to settle there; make yourself known, show what you are capable of, so that, wherever you settle, you will be welcomed, and people will take an interest in your work.” Accordingly, Mendelssohn left in May1830 and did not return until June 1832, after having entirely fulfilled the programme set out by his father.


A great traveller, as so many other artists have been throughout history, Mendelssohn reveals in his letters an uncommon elevation of spirit; everything that was false, vulgar or base revolted him; lies and injustice were abhorrent to him. Let us not forget that at the age of eighteen he had already composed his wonderful overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that his intellectual maturity, so ripe for someone of his age, probably led him to feel the need to confront otherness. Perhaps also because, as Montaigne (who had also travelled to Italy, Germany and Switzerland) observed, to go in search of the other is to go in search of oneself in order to be transformed. A desire for truth and authenticity, which are so clearly revealed in the words he wrote to his parents after returning from a walk along the Ponte Nomentano near Rome: “That is where you must go to find music, that is where it is to be heard everywhere, and not in theatres that are as empty as they are insipid.”


During those two years of his intense voyage he wrote numerous letters, reflections and comments to his family and friends which give us a glimpse into that phase in which the artist’s talent blossomed in contact with completely new worlds. Nicolas Dufetel writes, “To travel in space is to travel elsewhere, but it is also to travel in time. And to travel South (for that is the direction taken by the Grand Tour), like travelling to the East, is a journey into the past. Inversely, the West, following the path of the sun and light, is the future.” Through his eyes, we see successively the most beautiful places in each country, the greatest figures of the day in art, literature and politics, the theatres and the people, the city and the court, and, as Rolland points out, “and, what is even more moving and rare, we see the heart of a great artist laid bare… Blessed with a keen sensitivity to the beauty of nature, it was in the contemplation of the sea and the Alpine peaks that Mendelssohn sought inspiration; he steeped his soul in the masterpieces of Creation in order to be able to create his own masterpieces.”


Which brings us to that masterpiece, his Italian Symphony, so full of luminosity, joy, poetry and ease – all qualities that coincide with the art of William Turner and which are common traits shared by the two artists, for both were touched and inspired on their respective travels by their encounter with Italian culture. When Turner travelled to Italy between 1820 and 1829, he was already 65 years old, whereas the young composer was 21 years old when he visited the country between October 1830 and July 1831. It is extraordinary to see the extent to which their fascination for the country and its culture prompted William Turner and Felix Mendelssohn, two artists of such contrasting backgrounds and cultures, and from such different artistic expressions as painting and music, to achieve their sublime art imbued with beauty and intensity of expression.


During our years of immersion in the rich and complex world of Felix Mendelssohn’s life, we have admired the extraordinary quality and beauty of his music, but we have also been astonished by the intellectual maturity, the unerring judgement and the rare good sense revealed in his letters. As I studied the score of this Italian Symphony, I often wondered how this peculiar relationship between travel and creativity might have fostered the musical imagination. During the study and the final preparation of this symphony, and especially during our Professional Academies, I was particularly interested in this relationship, realizing that it could help us to understand how far these new experiences and encounters might have been a source of inspiration for the 24-year-old Mendelssohn. I was convinced that delving into the heart of these same sources of inspiration could help us to release once again all the light, joy and poetry contained in the two versions – the 1833 version and the final 1834 version – of this radiant Italian Symphony, which still moves us so deeply today.



Bellaterra, 3 July 2023


Translated by Jacqueline Minett


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