Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)
Incidental Music to Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Calm Sea and Prosperous 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 Abraham Mendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, the model for Lessing's Nathan the Wise, the epitome of tolerance in a generally intolerant world. In 1812 the family moved to Berlin after the French occupation 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. As a child he was charming and precocious, profiting from the wide cultural interests of his parents and relations, excelling as a pianist and busy with composition after composition. In 1816 he was baptized a Christian, a step that his father took six years later, accepting what Heine described as a ticket of admission into European culture although it was one not always regarded as valid by prejudiced contemporaries.
Abraham Mendelssohn sought the best advice when it came to his son's choice of career. Cherubini, director of the Paris Conservatoire, was consulted, and, while complimenting Abraham Mendelssohn on his wealth, agreed that his son should become a professional musician, advice given during the course of a visit to Paris in 1825 when Mendelssohn met many of the most distinguished composers and performers of the day. In Berlin his career took shape, 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 Tour that took him as far north as Scotland and as far south as Naples, his journeys serving as sources of inspiration.
Mendelssohn's subsequent career took him to Leipzig, where from 1835 he conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra and was later to be instrumental in the establishment of a conservatory. In 1841 he became involved in attempts by the new Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, to establish an Academy of the Arts in Berlin. Mendelssohn was invited to assume the responsibilities of director of the music section, which would function both as a conservatory and as a concert-�giving organization. The immediate result of his appointment was the commission to provide incidental music for a series of plays, starting with the Antigone of Sophocles, in 1841, followed, in 1842, by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed in Potsdam with the German translation of the play by Ludwig Tieck who to the composer's dismay had divided the play into three acts, necessitating the playing of one of the entr'actes with the curtain raised. He disapproved, too, of the decision to use Spanish Baroque costumes. The audience found the music of Mendelssohn to its taste, but deplored the vulgarity of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night�s Dream was an early favourite of the Mendelssohn family and in 1826 Felix Mendelssohn had written an Overture, a musical summary of the play, inspired by the German translation of August Wilhelm Schlegel, brother-in-law of Mendelssohn's Aunt Dorothea, and by 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 and the humour of what follows in the dispute between Oberon and his wife, the Fairy Queen, Titania. The Intermezzo is more human in its references to the lovers, taking refuge in the forest from parental disapproval, only to suffer the misunderstandings brought about by the well-�intentioned interference of the fairies in their mortal world. The entr' acte ends with music for the rude mechanicals, the Athenian workmen who rehearse their solemn tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe in the forest, in preparation for performance at the wedding of Duke Theseus. The Notturno shows night in the 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 his Jill", and Titania, in the scene that follows, lavishes her bewitched affection on Bottom the Weaver, translated by Puck's spell into a donkey. The Wedding March celebrates the marriage of Duke Theseus to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, a match that provides a formal mortal framework for the enchantment at the heart of the play.
Among the concert overtures written by Mendelssohn the best known remain Meeresstille und gl�ckliche Fahrt (�Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage�), Ruy Blas and Die Hebriden (�The Hebrides�) or Fingalsh�hle (�Fingal's Cave�), the second title of the last of these suggesting the romantic influence of the poems attributed to Ossian. Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage was written in 1828 and first performed in Berlin in the same year. The work is based 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 over the water), gives a picture of absolute stillness, as the ship, like the ancient mariner's, is becalmed and all is Todestille furchterlich (the terrible stillness of death). Movement comes with the second poem, Die Nebel zerreissen (The mists part), as the winds blow and the ship sails again to land now in sight.
Ruy BIas, the last of Mendelssohn's concert overtures, is based on Victor Hugo's play of the same name and was written to order in 1839, in the space of a few days. He found the play itself distasteful, with its story of intrigue at the court of the Spanish king Charles II, but the Overture, with its lively first subject and lyrical second theme remains a popular concert piece and a regular prelude to Hugo's drama.
The inspiration for the overture The Hebrides or Fingal's Cave, came from Mendelssohn's tour or Scotland with his friend Karl Klingemann in 1829. While Edinburgh suggested to him the later Scottish Symphony, a journey further north provided material for the overture, which he completed in Italy in the autumn of the following year, under a title suggesting Staffa, Overt�re zur einsamen Insel (�Overture for the Lonely Island�). In a letter to his family, Klingemann reported that the Highland climate brewed nothing but whisky, fog and foul weather, while the voyage by steamer to see the island of Staffa and what he described as the odiously celebrated Fingal's Cave made Mendelssohn sea-sick. In spite of this he immediately sketched the opening theme of the Hebrides Overture, which was later revised to be performed in 1832 in London, where it won immediate popularity.