Felix Mendelssohn was about as far from the stereotype of the starving artist as you could imagine. His father was a well-heeled and highly discriminating banker, and he saw to it that Felix got the best education money could buy.
Such an education inevitably included mind-broadening travel. Felix was no more than a teenager when he visited Paris and Switzerland, and papa’s pocket change paid his way to Britain in 1829 at the age of twenty. There he soaked up the damp, severe beauty of Holyrood Chapel, where Mary Stuart had been crowned. This set him on course for his Scottish Symphony.
Italy was quite another matter. Felix landed there late in 1830. It wasn’t long before Italy’s sunshine and energy had put paid to the grim grey memories of Scotland – and (for the moment) to the Scottish Symphony.
The festivals, the celebrations, the coronation of a pope: all this brilliant color shifted the musical gears of Mendelssohn’s mind into overdrive. In early 1831 he wrote home that he’d begun work on a new symphony – "the merriest piece I’ve yet written," he said. He expected to finish it in short order, but that was not to be. Mendelssohn didn’t have the Italian Symphony in performing condition until Spring of 1833, just in time to conduct its premiere in London in May.
You could argue, in fact, that Mendelssohn never actually finished his Italian Symphony as such. He never published it, and continued to revise and tweak it off and on for the rest of his life. The Italian Symphony finally saw print in 1851, listed as "opus 90, posthumous."
Italy’s vitality and energy radiate from the very first brilliant A major bars of the symphony – no slow, dark introduction here! The entire movement has a strong forward, upward drive. The andante second movement is the embodiment of Mendelssohn’s melodic skill (also on display in his Songs Without Words). His third movement echoes an elegant Mozartean minuet and trio.
The finale is where the Italian Symphony really gets technically interesting. Mendelssohn labels it a saltarello – a medieval Italian dance – and it ends in the key of A minor. In finishing a major-key symphony in the minor mode, Mendelssohn left Mozart well behind.
By Mendelssohn’s time, a transition from minor to major wasn’t too extraordinary, even in a large, multimovement work. After all, Beethoven had begun his fifth symphony in minor and moved to major.
But going the other way – from major to minor – wasn’t nearly as common. Not unheard of, mind you; a handful of Scarlatti keyboard sonatas and a Handel concerto had followed this pattern, well before Mendelssohn’s time. (I should note, though, that the Handel was from his opus 3. That set was a notorious cut-and-paste hack job, so it’s entirely possible that ending a major work in minor was literally accidental there!)
It’s also true that Mendelssohn himself had composed his opus 14 Rondo Capriccioso for piano a year before the symphony, beginning it in E major and wrapping it up in E minor. And in the early 20th century, the Danish composer Carl Nielsen would effectively dispense with the idea of a symphony being in a key, more or less aiming his last three symphonies toward keys.
However, in his era’s symphonic literature, Mendelssohn seems to stand alone. I don’t know of any symphony prior to Mendelssohn’s Italian which begins in a major key and ends in a minor key.