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ClassicsOnline Home » MENDELSSOHN, Felix: Midsummer Night's Dream(A) (Sung in English) (Wollerman, Becker, Varsity Voices, Nota Bene Choir, New Zealand Symphony, Judd)
In 1826 Felix Mendelssohn, aged only seventeen, composed his famous overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He wrote incidental music for the same play sixteen years later, and effortlessly recaptured the world of his youthful imagination. It sparkles and shimmers with its fairy magic even now. In this recording, the haunting Nocturne, the lively Scherzo and the famous Wedding March are interspersed with ‘melodramas’ accompanying spoken text from Shakespeare’s much-loved play.
By Ralph Moore
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Complete Incidental Music for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
by William Shakespeare
Oberon / Snout / Moth – Tom Mison
Puck / Philostrate – Adrian Grove
Titania / Hermia – Emily Raymond
Helena / Fairy / Hippolyta / Peaseblossom – Anne-Marie Piazza
Demetrius / Quince / Mustard-seed – Gunnar Cauthery
Lysander / Flute / Cobweb – Peter Kenny
Theseus / Bottom – David Timson
Incidental music written for a stage play is, by its nature, ephemeral. Very seldom is the music written for a specific production suitable for use in another production of the same play. Since different directors, designers and so on require a different musical input to reflect their vision, it is not surprising that most incidental music dies with the production for which it was written. It is remarkable therefore when a theatre score survives and makes the transition to the concert hall. Those few, successful scores that have transferred include Beethoven’s overture to Goethe’s Egmont, Schubert’s music for the forgotten play Rosamunde, Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt—and the most performed and popular of them all, Mendelssohn’s score for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As an adolescent Felix Mendelssohn had developed a passion for Shakespeare, reading the plays in translation by A.W. Schlegel. He saw a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Berlin with his sister Fanny. And it was in 1826 at the tender age of seventeen that Mendelssohn composed his famous overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Its first incarnation was as a piano duet that he could play with his sister, but Mendelssohn soon orchestrated it. Its originality caused excitement in the musical world and helped to establish Mendelssohn’s reputation as a prodigy. He, however, rejected the idea that he had broken new ground with this piece, saying that he had modelled the overture on Beethoven’s overture to Fidelio. He told his friend Lobe, ‘What did Beethoven do in his overture? He painted in tone pictures. I tried to do the same thing.’ But he added roguishly, ‘Unless, you want to consider it as new ground that I used the ophicleide.’ A now long-forgotten wind instrument, the ophicleide is a cross between a bassoon and a serpent.
Mendelssohn, despite his protest, was indeed breaking new ground, for A Midsummer Night’s Dream in effect created a new musical genre. It was the first overture intended for the concert hall which had a descriptive programme—in other words, its music told a story or reflected the plot of a play. Mendelssohn declared that it was Shakespeare’s imaginative portrayal of Oberon’s fairy kingdom which inspired him, and which became the subject matter of the overture. During its composition Mendelssohn was teeming with musical ideas. On one occasion, lying on the grass with his friend Schubring, he suddenly seized him by the arm and whispered, ‘Hush!’ ‘He afterwards informed me,’ Schubring recalled, ‘that a large fly had just then gone buzzing by and he wanted to hear the sound it produced gradually die away.’ Mendelssohn later pointed out to his friend the passage in the score inspired by the fly (a descending scale in the cellos, from B minor to F sharp minor).
Through a clever use of motifs Mendelssohn characterised the chief elements of the plot and some of its characters, notably Bottom, whom—as an ass—we hear braying, and also the mischievous Puck. The overture opens with four slow, suspended chords which are like the conjuring of a spell to hold the listener entranced. Next we hear the busy fluttering of the fairies, then the grand music for Theseus and Hippolyta; this is followed by a romantic melody for the lovers which leads into a bucolic folk-tune representing the mechanicals, complete with the braying Bottom in the brass. A slow passage of descending scales might indicate the lovers’ arrival in the wood, lying down and dropping off to sleep, then to have their vision enchanted by Puck’s magic juice.
When the fairy music next returns, it is accompanied by vulgar notes that mimic Bottom’s snoring in the arms of Titania. The snoring is provided in the original scoring by Mendelssohn’s concession to ‘new ground’—the ophicleide. After a brief return to the world of Theseus, Puck and the fairies mischievously return, as they do in the play, to bless the Duke’s house. The same four magic chords heard at the opening are repeated at the end of the overture, releasing the listener from the enchantment.
In 1841 Mendelssohn was appointed Royal Kapellmeister to the Prussian court, and the King proposed that he write incidental music for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be directed by the court poet and dramatist Ludwig Tieck. Mendelssohn approached his task with his customary energy, and it is a marvel that this new music blends so perfectly with his youthful overture. Though sixteen years had passed he effortlessly recaptured the world of his adolescent imagination, using and developing many of the themes found in his overture. Echoes of the overture are heard throughout the incidental music.
The incidental music’s charm belies the difficult rehearsal period Mendelssohn encountered. Working independently from the stage director Tieck, Mendelssohn created music for the traditional five-act version of the play, unaware that Tieck had compressed the play into three acts. This meant that two of Mendelssohn’s entr’actes (music to cover scene changes) would not be played while the curtain was down. The Nocturne, for instance, which was intended as a reflection on the sleeping lovers, was now to be played with the curtain raised when the supine lovers were in full view of the audience. Also, Mendelssohn could not realise his original conception of the music and production flowing without interruption from the opening chords, first heard in the Overture, to their repetition as the play ends. The Royal Court insisted on a half-hour interval for refreshments.
The incidental music reflects the dual worlds of the play: humanity and the fairy kingdom. The four human lovers, Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, are characterised in the Nocturne, and also the Intermezzo, which leads effortlessly into a contrasting bucolic tune to accompany the appearance of Bottom and his fellow workmen. Later Mendelssohn gives them a raucous ‘Dance of the Clowns’, a development of the ass’s braying first heard in the Overture. The court of Theseus is portrayed in the grandiose Wedding March—perhaps the most famous piece Mendelssohn ever wrote. But it is the fairy music that lifts this score out of the merely functional. In the Overture, and the Scherzo (so reminiscent of the scherzo in Mendelssohn’s Octet), the rapid string passages brilliantly suggest the flapping of tiny wings as the fairies flit about their fairy business. The effect is magical. There are some breathtakingly beautiful moments, such as the truly magical transition in Act V—from the retiring of Theseus’ court after the wedding festivities to the arrival in darkness of Oberon and Titania to bless the house with light. In a seamless transition the court exits to a reprise of the Wedding March, which fragments into the fairy motif in the strings.
An aspect of the score which is often omitted from the many recordings of Mendelssohn’s music is his ‘melodramas’. A nineteenth-century stage convention, a melodrama was musical accompaniment to the spoken text, to heighten the emotional content of certain scenes. Thus Oberon’s application of the magic flower’s dew on Titania’s sleepy eyes is accompanied by an extended passage based on the opening bars of the Overture.
In this recording, hearing the melodramas with the spoken text as indicated in the score gives listeners a unique opportunity to recreate in their minds a lavish nineteenth-century Shakespearian production of one of the world’s most popular plays, as Mendelssohn intended it should be heard.
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