Mendelssohn was among many nineteenth-century German composers, among them Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Bruch, who were fascinated by Scotland, by its folk music, history and literature. Mendelssohn was the only one of these six who visited Scotland, when at the age of twenty during the summer of 1829 he found the inspiration for his Scottish Symphony at Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh and for the 'Hebrides' Overture (also known as the 'Fingal’s Cave' Overture) on the desolate island of Staffa off the coast of Mull in the Hebrides. But well before he made his celebrated walking tour of Scotland in 1829, he was reading the poetry and novels of the ‘great wizard’ of the North, Sir Walter Scott, and was acquainted with the ‘Ossianic’ poems, one of the great literary forgeries of the eighteenth century. In the early 1820s he composed two jejune settings of verses from Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake
(including the Ave Maria
, also set by Schubert). Then, probably in 1828 or early 1829, the young composer attempted his first full-scale work inspired by a Scotland he had not yet seen or experienced. The three-movement Fantasia in F sharp minor, Op 28, eventually released in 1834, took shape originally as a 'Sonate écossaise', mentioned already in family correspondence from early 1829. Four years later, early in 1833, Mendelssohn revised the work, still titled 'Sonate écossaise', but then published it the following year as a Fantasia, without its Scottish attribution.
In three movements—slow, moderate, and very fast—its broad architectural outlines recall another work by a German composer who had challenged the boundaries between the fantasy and sonata—the celebrated 'Sonata quasi una fantasia' of Beethoven popularized as the ‘Moonlight’. Be that as it may, Mendelssohn captured characteristic aspects of Scottish folk music in the harp-like preluding of the opening measures, the use of drone effects, and widely spaced chords. The close of the first movement, an especially memorable passage, uses open pedal to create a deliberately blurred, harmonically effacing effect. Whether the second movement, in A-B-A form, contains Scottish elements remains open to question; but the highly charged, dynamic finale has a restless energy that impresses as looking forward to the ‘warlike’ finale of the Scottish Symphony.
from notes by R Larry Todd © 2014