Mendelssohn: The Hebrides / A Midsummer Night’s Dream

‘I have grown accustomed to composing in our garden…Today or tomorrow I am going to dream there A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ From the pen of the 17-year-old Mendelssohn sprang to life Shakespeare’s magical world of fairies, misguided lovers, rustic actors and a royal wedding.


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When?

In 1826 Mendelssohn writes the stand-alone concert piece A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, at the age of 17. He will write incidental music for a performance of the play, including the famous ‘Wedding March’ 16 years later. Meanwhile:

  • Beethoven completes his final string quartet; Schubert will respond by simply saying, ‘After this, what is left for us to write?’
  • The second and third Presidents of the United States, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson respectively, die.
  • Chunee, a captive Indian elephant renowned in London for his appearances in circuses and on the stage, is savagely killed: after refusing poison and surviving being shot 152 times, he is hacked to death with a sword.
  • The photograph known as Point de vue du Gras (Viewpoint in Gras) is taken in France; it is thought to be the oldest surviving camera photograph.

Fast Facts

  • Felix Mendelssohn’s genius was noticed very young, and he was fortunate to have parents who valued music — they were among the intellectual and cultural elite of Berlin, hosting salons at which the greatest philosophers, scientists and artists of Germany were regular visitors. They were also wealthy enough to ensure that Mendelssohn studied with the best teachers, and had access to a small private orchestra to test out his early compositions.
  • One of Mendelssohn’s first masterpieces was the overture ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, written when the composer was just 17 years old. Up until now, overtures were written as the opening music for plays or operas, calling up the mood for the drama which was to follow; Mendelssohn here did something new, composing an ‘overture’ that stood on its own, creating the whole world of the story within the music. This new type of overture came to be known as a ‘concert overture’, with the theatre introduction kind called ‘dramatic overtures’.
  • Sixteen years later, Mendelssohn returned to Shakespeare’s play, this time to write ‘incidental music’ — music to accompany the play in the theatre — for a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Berlin. He wrote a series of instrumental movements, songs, duets and choruses to highlight key moments in the play, the most famous being the ‘Wedding March’, now a staple of wedding music around the world.
  • When he was in his early 20s, Mendelssohn was sent by his parents on ‘a Grand Tour’ of Europe and Britain, to broaden the mind; this was something of a tradition at the time, rather like today’s ‘gap year’, only in Mendelssohn’s case the trip lasted for more than two years! One of the places which made a huge impression on him was Scotland: the concert overture The Hebrides was inspired by the rolling waves at Fingal’s Cave in the cliffs of Staffa Island, and his Third Symphony had its genesis in a visit to the ruins of Holyrood Castle in Edinburgh.
  • In the midst of writing the ‘Scottish’ Symphony, Mendelssohn’s travels took him to Italy, where he wrote his Fourth Symphony. The good weather and good humour of Italy produced music as bright and sunny as the ‘Scottish’ Symphony is misty and moody.