Mendelssohn and the bloody Scots

From what I can gather, 16th century Scotland may have been a challenging place to live. Granted, I expect that for people who are a bit soft like me, 16th century anywhere would not have been a walk in the park. If you need to be reminded of some of the rather gory details particular to Scotland and the House of Stuart, a new film adaption of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots has just been released. Even without theatrical embellishment, it’s pretty gruesome stuff.


I don’t think a spoiler-alert is warranted in this case, as Queen Mary’s untimely demise is well documented. The details of just how she died (by order of her own cousin) and particularly the questionable competence of her executioner should be further reading only for the strong of constitution. Her Italian musician-friend—and rumoured lover—David Rizzio had already met a similarly dreadful end, suffering 56 stab wounds at the hands of her husband and his cronies. In turn, the Queen’s husband, Lord Darnley, was later murdered, either by strangulation or by a keg of gunpowder detonated directly beneath his sleeping quarters.


Ghastly events such as these hold modern imaginations sufficiently captive to warrant the creation of a major motion picture. Perhaps more surprising is that this blood-soaked history also brought about one of the great works of the orchestral repertoire nearly 200 years ago.

In 1829, a young German composer named Felix Mendelssohn set out on his first trip to England and Scotland. One of the stops along this walking tour was Holyrood Palace and the ruins of the chapel nearby. He wrote to his family:


“In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; a little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door; up this way they came and found Rizzio in that little room, pulled him out, and three rooms off there is a dark corner, where they murdered him. The chapel close to it is now roofless; grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything around is broken and mouldering, and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.”


Mendelssohn began working on this symphony while still on his Grand Tour of the British Isles, but it took him nearly thirteen years to finish it. The Scottish Symphony opens as if appearing out of the gloomy, swirling mists of the northern isles, and it finishes with a blaze of sunlight in one of the most majestic melodies of the orchestral repertoire. Though it was published as the third of his five masterful symphonies, it was actually the last Mendelssohn would complete, and it stands as one of his greatest contributions to the symphonic canon.


Felix Mendelssohn did not live to be an old man, but in his short life, he created an astonishing wealth of music, including symphonies, concertos, oratorios and chamber music. All of it is somehow imbued with eternally youthful vigour and inextinguishable joy. It sets Mendelssohn apart as one of the great progenitors of the Romantic musical soul.


It’s quite likely that, given an opportunity to comment, my Scottish ancestors would call me a big wimp. But the more I learn about Mary, Queen of Scots and her compatriots, I’m happy for the 500 years’ distance and the chance to ponder it all from my comfortable seat in the movie theatre.