Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, op. 61

Felix Mendelssohn

(Born in Hamburg, February 3, 1809; died in Leipzig, November 4, 1847)

"We were mentioning yesterday what an important part the Midsummer Night's Dream has always played in our house. . . . We really were brought up on [it], and Felix especially has made it his own, almost recreating the characters which had sprung from Shakespeare's inexhaustible genius. From the Wedding March, so full of pomp but so thoroughly festive in its character, to the plaintive music of Thisbe's death, the fairy songs, the dances, the interludes . . . all and everything has found its counterpart in music, and his work is on a par with Shakespeare's."

Fanny Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn's beloved and gifted older sister, Fanny, was rhapsodizing over her brother's incidental music to Shakespeare's enchanted comedy, which she and the other Mendelssohn siblings had just heard at its premiere at the Prussian Royal Palace in Potsdam on October 14, 1843. Even allowing for a bit of sisterly pride, her assessment of his achievement here is on the mark. Countless composers have been inspired by Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies; few have succeeded as brilliantly as Mendelssohn in capturing the Bard of Avon's genius in music.

The magnitude of Mendelssohn's achievement is even more astonishing when we realize that, while the incidental music was composed when the composer was 34, the overture—one of the best-loved curtain raisers ever penned—comes from 1826 when he was only 17. Even Mozart had not composed anything on this level of artistic originality and technical mastery at such a tender age.

Mendelssohn was truly a golden child, blessed with brains and prodigious talent, and a near-ideal environment in which to cultivate them. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, had risen from poverty to become an esteemed philosopher; his father, Abraham, was one of Germany's leading bankers and had made the family fortune. Both of Felix's parents were highly educated people and were determined that their offspring would realize their full potential. The four children, all bright and eager students, were given the finest tutors and books.

As Felix's musical genius hatched, he was able to spread his wings into all the areas that distinguished his adult career. Sunday afternoon musicales at the Mendelssohn household drew a crowd of Berlin's artistic elite, and featured the youngster as impresario (planning the concert programs), piano soloist, conductor (the Mendelssohns sometimes hired a full professional orchestra), and composer. In 1825 when the family moved to a grand estate on Berlin's Leipzigerstrasse, they converted the summerhouse in the garden into an auditorium seating more than 200. It was there, probably in the summer or early fall of 1826, that the 17-year-old prodigy premiered his Midsummer Night's Dream Overture.

As Fanny Mendelssohn recalled, the Mendelssohn children were enraptured with Shakespeare's plays and delighted in acting them out as well as reading them. Family performances of their favorite, A Midsummer Night's Dream, a tale of four mismatched lovers benighted and bedeviled by fairies in an Athenian wood, led to Felix's precocious masterpiece. It is one of the finest of Romantic overtures, cast in traditional sonata form, but full of programmatic correspondences to the play's plot and characters.

The opening is pure magic: four soft woodwind chords raising the curtain on a world of fantasy. This is followed by soft, fleet, otherworldly music in E minor for violins, an early example of Mendelssohn's trademark scherzo music, here representing the world of the fairies. The world of mortals follows with a loud theme in E major, full of pomp and grandeur, befitting the court of Theseus and Hippolyta. We also meet two other groups of mortals in the exposition: the beleaguered lovers (Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius) in lyrical, yearning music for clarinets and violins, and finally the lower-class Athenian artisans in a clod-hopping peasant dance, punctuated with the hee-haws of Nick Bottom (transformed by the fairies into an ass). The development section is as much a dramatic story as an imaginative working-out of themes; notice the mischievous, even menacing sound of the woodwinds suggesting these fairies are more than a little dangerous. In the overture's marvelous closing coda, the pompous court theme is slowed down to make a lovely, dreaming reverie for the violins, before the four magical woodwind chords ring down the curtain.

Seventeen years later, Mendelssohn returned to the world of his childhood to recapture and expand this spellbound music into a complete set of incidental music to accompany a court production of the play commissioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. A sparkling Scherzo introduces us to Puck, the nimble elf who will create most of the mischief by unwary applications of his magic potions; Mendelssohn makes masterly use of bright woodwind colors here, especially a solo flute at the end. High woodwinds also dominate the impish “Fairies’ March.”

A charming choral song, "Ye spotted snakes," is the fairies' lullaby to their queen Titania and reminds us that Mendelssohn had tremendous influence on later English composers, including Sir Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. In the agitated Intermezzo, phrases are hurled back and forth between violins and high woodwinds; this music expresses Hermia's anguish after she awakens to discover her lover, Lysander, has deserted her. After Puck has put the four lovers, now hopelessly confused by his spells, to sleep, comes the beautiful dreaming Nocturne, led by a melancholy solo horn, the traditional instrument of the forest.

The lovers awaken and, restored to their rightful loves, are united with King Theseus and Queen Hippolyta in a triple wedding to the brilliant “ Wedding March”; this music, unfortunately, soon degenerated into cliché after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of England, great Mendelssohn fans, chose it for the 1858 wedding of their eldest daughter to the Crown Prince of Prussia. Whimsically humorous music describes the artisans' inept enactment of the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe (“Dance of the Clowns”) at the wedding festivities. Suggesting music from Shakespeare’s own era, a trio of clarinet-bassoon-drum plays a droll “Funeral March” for Thisbe’s death. In the Finale, “Through this house give glimm’ring light,” we return to where we began. Over the Overture's scherzo music, the fairies creep through the palace to bless the newlyweds; the story closes with the violins' lovely song and the enchanted woodwind chords.

Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2014