There could barely be a greater contrast between Mendelssohn’s Italian and Reformation symphonies.
The Italian: a fiery, vivacious Mendelssohn, a perfect illustration of his nervous and enthusiastic nature and a rousing romp through Italy.
The Reformation: often solemn, with a clearly religious bias; a work that might even be referred to as a ‘monument’.
But there is also a similarity. Mendelssohn never wanted either of these works to be published. Oddly enough, he was not satisfied with them. They came to be printed after the composer’s death. The composer’s symphonies are numbered according to their publication dates rather than chronologically by when they were written. ‘No. 4’, the Italian (written in 1833), was actually the third and ‘No. 5’, the Reformation (1830), the second.
The Italian is a real party piece. This was certainly the view following the work’s premiere in London on 13 May 1833, given by the Philharmonic Society. (Mendelssohn was highly acclaimed in London, where he had been commissioned to produce a new symphony).
The Reformation Symphony had its roots in quite different soil. In 1830, Germany was celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Confession of Augsburg. The Confession was a key document for Lutheranism, and its submission to Emperor Charles V in 1530 marked an enormous event for the Reformation, as Lutheranism became the official state religion. Mendelssohn wanted to make a contribution towards this national obeisance with a large-scale symphony. He incorporated two well-known Protestant melodies into the work.