Program Notes


BORN February 3, 1809. Hamburg (Germany), then under Napoleonic rule

DIED November 4, 1847. Leipzig, Saxony (Germany)

COMPOSED:  March 6 through 8, 1839, at the request of the Leipzig Theatrical Pension Fund

WORLD PREMIERE: March 11, 1839 at a benefit production of Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas at the Leipzig Theater, with (it seems) the composer leading the theater’s orchestra. He revised the piece and re-introduced it March 21, 1839 when he led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—December 1, 1912. Henry Hadley led in a Pops concert. MOST RECENT—December 1987. Andrew Massey conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons; 4 horns; 2 trumpets; 3 trombones; timpani; and strings

DURATION: About 7 mins

THE BACKSTORY Apart from his incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we don’t often think of Felix Mendelssohn as a composer of stage works. In fact, he was quite active in that area from 1820, when (as a ten-year-old prodigy) he composed a musical setting of a dramatic scene in French, “Quel bonheur pour mon coeur,” until 1847, the final year of his life, when he worked on eight sections—two of which he essentially completed—for a projected opera called Die Lorelei. In the years between, he composed eight light operatic pieces, variously called singspiels, lustspiels, or liederspiels. More significant is the incidental music he created for stage productions of seven plays. The score for one of those is lost, but the surviving ones are all admirable achievements attached to important dramatic works: German translations or adaptations of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s El principe constante, Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, Sophocles’s Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, and Jean Racine’s Athalie, in addition to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Besides the famous Shakespeare score, the only items a concertgoer is likely to encounter are the “War March of the Priests” from Athalie and the Ruy Blas Overture.

Ruy Blas, a five-act historical drama from 1838, is a long, dark, convoluted, and implausible theater-piece that exemplifies why Hugo’s original stage works rarely make it to the stage any more. (No, Les Misérables was not an original stage work.) It involves intrigue in the Spanish Court of Philip II, the same ominous world that inspired Schiller’s dramatic poem Don Carlos, which in 1867 was turned into Verdi’s opera of the same name—although the action in Schiller’s and Verdi’s works deals with a different episode than Hugo’s does. The plot has to do with a wicked, exiled nobleman who, to get revenge against the Queen who banished him, tricks her into marrying his servant Ruy Blas, whom she dubs a duke and names prime minister. When the trick is revealed, the Queen is forced to repudiate the low-born Ruy Blas, despite the fact that she actually does love him. Ruy Blas responds by running a sword through the evil nobleman and then finishing himself off with a cup of poison, an act the Queen so admires that she promises to hold him in highest esteem as she moves on with her life.

It has had its partisans. Algernon Charles Swinburne, the Victorian poet preternaturally drawn to masochism, raved about Ruy Blas, “In command and in expression of passion and pathos, of noble and of evil nature, it equals any other work of this great dramatic poet; in the lifelike fusion of high comedy with deep tragedy it excels them all.” Mendelssohn did not agree. After he read it, at the behest of the managers of the Leipzig Theatrical Pension Fund, he declared it “detestable and more utterly beneath contempt than you could believe.” The Fund’s administrators, however, were committed to presenting Hugo’s work in a benefit performance in March 1839. They hoped Mendelssohn would lend his clout as Capellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and that he would spice up the evening by contributing an overture and a vocal piece for the occasion.

Mendelssohn really was quite busy just then and ruled out the overture as an impossibility. But, as he shortly explained in a letter to his mother, he deemed the Theatrical Pension Fund to be “an excellent benevolent institution” and did not disagree with the group’s suggestion that “the receipts would be better if my name appeared on the bills.” He decided that the vocal number wouldn’t be too onerous a task, and he complied by writing his “Song of the Washerwomen,” a “romance” for two-part women’s chorus, completed on February 14. (He published it that May as a vocal duet titled “Lied aus Ruy Blas.”) He continued his letter to his mother (here in a high-Victorian translation by Lady Wallace):

The performance was to take place last Monday week. On the previous Tuesday, the people came to thank me politely for the romance, and said it was such a pity I had not also written an overture, but they were perfectly aware that time was indispensable for such a work, and the ensuing year, if I would permit them, they would give me longer previous notice. This put me on my mettle. I reflected on the matter the same evening, and began my score. On Wednesday there was a concert rehearsal, which occupied the whole forenoon. Thursday the concert itself, yet the overture was in the hands of the copyist early on Friday; played three times on Monday in the concert room, tried over once in the theater, and given in the evening as an introduction to the odious play. Few of my works have caused me more amusing excitement.

When it came to major works, Mendelssohn often doubted his first inspirations, and he was wont to go on revising his initial conceptions over the course of many years. He did retouch the Ruy Blas Overture immediately after its premiere, in time to re-introduce it later the same month as a standalone piece, when he led the Gewandhaus Orchestra in its concert premiere. For that occasion, he reported to his mother, he was intent on having it billed as Overture to the Theatrical Fund rather than Overture to Ruy Blas—thereby underscoring how profoundly he did not wish to be associated with Hugo’s play.

The Overture does not prefigure any specific action or episodes in the play, although the disparate moods traversed in its seven-minute span certainly parallel some of the emotional states encountered in the drama. It is essentially a standard overture of the Romantic era, reminiscent of analogous pieces by Weber, Spohr, or Marschner.

THE MUSIC This work in C minor begins with a stentorian motif of sustained chords for woodwinds and brass, perhaps recalling the statue’s music in Mozart’s Don Giovanni; it will return to punctuate the Overture’s otherwise energetic proceedings. At the outset, this music alternates with the strings’ halting attempts to launch a fast theme—nervous or furious, depending on the interpretation—which they finally manage to accomplish a minute into the work, establishing the tempo of Allegro molto that defines the overall pace.

As one would expect from the mature Mendelssohn, the orchestration is inspired: with the second theme, for example, he achieves an altogether original sound by assigning the melody to the clarinets (in their lowest register), bassoons, and half the cellos, playing legato, against staccato doubling in the other strings. That leads shortly to a triumphant third theme, filled with upward-leaping arpeggios. In certain ways, the overture’s vocabulary foreshadows Verdi’s hyper-Romantic operas of the ensuing decade. In fact, the year of the Ruy Blas Overture was also the year of Verdi’s first opera, Oberto.

Mendelssohn never published this piece. (Any Mendelssohn opus number above 72 is a posthumous designation.) That may explain why he felt free to recycle its final theme, the one with the rising arpeggios, in a symphony he worked on sporadically from about 1842 through 1846. He initially began sketching that symphony in B-flat major but then raised it to C major‚ the key in which that theme stood in the Ruy Blas Overture.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

(May 2019)

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