What is particularly amazing about the Mendelssohn symphonies is the fact that he is both harking back to old masters like Bach, and, as a child of his time, looking ahead. Especially his Italian and Scottish symphonies are pointing at the future, since Mendelssohn lived in the era of discovery, of der Wanderer. Goethe came up with his jungen Werther, a guy who went away to discover the world and upon returning nothing looked the same. And that is exactly what you can hear in his music: astonishment, translated into music using harmonies we maybe already knew but which in his hands sounded completely fresh and new. Having said that, you can also hear an old-school musical approach. Mendelssohn sometimes uses fugues or chorales we know from older styles. He was the first to bring back those trustworthy techniques – and that, in itself, was also new.
Mendelssohn came from a cultured family versed in art, literature and philosophy as well as music, so we can take it that when he declared Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas to be ‘detestable’, after being asked to write an overture and a song for a Leipzig production of it in March 1839, it was not just because he was squeamish about the high body count. Set in 17th-century Spain, the play told the story of Ruy Blas, a servant cynically tricked by his master, Don Salluste, into impersonating a court grandee and wooing the Queen, who had scorned Salluste but whom Blas loves. When Salluste reveals the truth of Blas’ low birth in an attempt to compromise the Queen and thus gain revenge, the humiliated Blas kills him and takes poison, though not before the Queen has declared her love.
For all its subsequent high standing in Hugo’s output, the play had been only a moderate success at its premiere in Paris five months earlier, and the Leipzig staging was given in aid of the local Theatrical Pension Fund. Mendelssohn originally agreed only to write the song, but in the end relented, apparently piqued when it was suggested that he could not write the overture in the admittedly short time allowed. In the end, he turned it out in just three days.
The result, as ever with Mendelssohn, is brilliant in manner and skilful in construction, though the carefree energy of much of it seems strangely at odds with the subject. Only the swirling, febrile C minor music of the first theme and, above all, the noble opening wind chords that open the work, and return several times to punctuate the course of the movement (a dark counterpart of the ‘magical’ chords of the A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture of 13 years earlier), seem to betray apparent inspiration in Hugo’s grim tale.