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The symphony occupies a remarkably limited place in Mendelssohn's oeuvre. Because he published just two symphonies – one a work of his sixteenth year and the other only after a fourteen-year incubation – one might well imagine that the anxiety of Beethoven's influence overwhelmed him. Certainly, Mendelssohn's history with the symphony demonstrates his intense self-criticism and even self-doubt. It also reflects other factors, however, including his schedule of professional activities and his restless compositional imagination.
Mendelssohn was the most influential and widely admired orchestral composer of his generation. His experience with the orchestral repertoire of both eighteenth-century masters and his contemporaries gave him an unerring sense for original and imaginative structures. His gift for musical characterization, manifest in his concert overtures, captured an aspect of Romanticism in a way that appealed equally to unsophisticated listeners and to critics, whether progressive or conservative. And in a few works he explored the possibilities of complex narrative in music.
The apprentice sinfonias to Symphony no. 1 (1821–1824)
Mendelssohn gained his orchestral mastery through rigorous study. Karl Friedrich Zelter’s tutelage brooked no shirking of assignments in harmonization, elementary forms, and rigorous counterpoint in a tradition extending back to J. S. Bach. After about two years of these studies Mendelssohn began to work in full-scale compositions in more complex forms.
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