MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night's Dream / Overtures
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Felix MendelssohnBartholdy (1809-1847)
Incidental Music toShakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Calm Sea andProsperous Voyage, Overture, Op. 27; Ruy Bias, Overture, Op. 95
Fingal's Cave,Overture, Op. 26
Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, son of the banker AbrahamMendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, themodel for Lessing's Nathan the Wise, the epitome of tolerance in agenerally intolerant world. In 1812 the family moved to Berlin after the Frenchoccupation of Hamburg and it was there that Mendelssohn received his education,in music as a pupil of Carl Zelter, for whom the boy seemed a second Mozart. Asa child he was charming and precocious, profiting from the wide culturalinterests of his parents and relations, excelling as a pianist and busy withcomposition after composition. In 1816 he was baptized a Christian, a step thathis father took six years later, accepting what Heine described as a ticket ofadmission into European culture although it was one not always regarded asvalid by prejudiced contemporaries.
Abraham Mendelssohn sought the best advice when it came to his son'schoice of career. Cherubini, director of the Paris Conservatoire, wasconsulted, and, while complimenting Abraham Mendelssohn on his wealth, agreedthat his son should become a professional musician, advice given during thecourse of a visit to Paris in 1825 when Mendelssohn met many of the mostdistinguished composers and performers of the day. In Berlin his career tookshape, with prolific composition and activity as a pianist and as a conductor.
His education was to include a period of travel throughout Europe, a Grand Tourthat took him as far north as Scotland and as far south as Naples, his journeysserving as sources of inspiration.
Mendelssohn's subsequent career took him to Leipzig, where from 1835 heconducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra and was later to be instrumental in theestablishment of a conservatory. In 1841 he became involved in attempts by thenew Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, to establish an Academy of the Arts inBerlin. Mendelssohn was invited to assume the responsibilities of director ofthe music section, which would function both as a conservatory and as aconcert-?¡giving organization. The immediate result of his appointment was thecommission to provide incidental music for a series of plays, starting with theAntigone of Sophocles, in 1841, followed, in 1842, by Shakespeare's AMidsummer Night's Dream, performed in Potsdam with the German translationof the play by Ludwig Tieck who to the composer's dismay had divided the playinto three acts, necessitating the playing of one of the entr'actes with thecurtain raised. He disapproved, too, of the decision to use Spanish Baroquecostumes. The audience found the music of Mendelssohn to its taste, butdeplored the vulgarity of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream was an earlyfavourite of the Mendelssohn family and in 1826 Felix Mendelssohn had writtenan Overture, a musical summary of the play, inspired by the German translationof August Wilhelm Schlegel, brother-in-law of Mendelssohn's Aunt Dorothea, andby the beauty of a summer evening in the garden of the family house in Berlin.
The incidental music to the later production of the play starts with this Overture.
The Scherzo, a first entr'acte, depicts the gossamer elegance andthe humour of what follows in the dispute between Oberon and his wife, theFairy Queen, Titania. The Intermezzo is more human in its references tothe lovers, taking refuge in the forest from parental disapproval, only tosuffer the misunderstandings brought about by the well-?¡intentionedinterference of the fairies in their mortal world. The entr' acte endswith music for the rude mechanicals, the Athenian workmen who rehearse theirsolemn tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe in the forest, in preparation forperformance at the wedding of Duke Theseus. The Notturno shows night inthe forest, as the lovers sleep and Puck applies a magic potion to their eyes,so that when they wake all will be well and "every Jack shall have hisJill", and Titania, in the scene that follows, lavishes her bewitchedaffection on Bottom the Weaver, translated by Puck's spell into a donkey. The WeddingMarch celebrates the marriage of Duke Theseus to Hippolyta, Queen of theAmazons, a match that provides a formal mortal framework for the enchantment atthe heart of the play.
Among the concert overtures written by Mendelssohn the best known remainMeeresstille und gl??ckliche Fahrt ('Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage'), RuyBlas and Die Hebriden ('The Hebrides') or Fingalshohle ('Fingal'sCave'), the second title of the last of these suggesting the romantic influenceof the poems attributed to Ossian. Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage waswritten in 1828 and first performed in Berlin in the same year. The work isbased on two poems by Goethe, whom Mendelssohn had visited in Weimar in 1821.
The first of the two. Tiefe Stille herrscht im Wasser (Deep calm overthe water), gives a picture of absolute stillness, as the ship, like theancient mariner's, is becalmed and all is Todestille furchterlich (theterrible stillness of death). Movement comes with the second poem, Die Nebelzerreissen (The mists part), as the winds blow and the ship sails again toland now in sight.
Ruy BIas, the last of Mendelssohn's concert overtures, is based on Victor Hugo'splay of the same name and was written to order in 1839, in the space of a fewdays. He found the play itself distasteful, with its story of intrigue at thecourt of the Spanish king Charles II, but the Overture, with its livelyfirst subject and lyrical second theme remains a popular concert piece and aregular prelude to Hugo's drama.
The inspiration for the overture The Hebrides or Fingal'sCave, came from Mendelssohn's tour or Scotland with his friend KarlKlingemann in 1829. While Edinburgh suggested to him the later ScottishSymphony, a journey further north provided material for the overture, whichhe completed in Italy in the autumn of the following year, under a titlesuggesting Staffa, Overt??re zur einsamen Insel ('Overture for the LonelyIsland'). In a letter to his family, Klingemann reported that the Highlandclimate brewed nothing but whisky, fog and foul weather, while the voyage bysteamer to see the island of Staffa and what he described as the odiouslycelebrated Fingal's Cave made Mendelssohn sea-sick. In spite of this heimmediately sketched the opening theme of the Hebrides Overture, whichwas later revised to be performed in 1832 in London, where it won immediatepopularity.