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SFS Chorus Manager Elaine Robertson with Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin, on Mendelssohn’s The First Walpurgis Night

September 17, 2013

What better way to start off San Francisco Symphony Chorus’s 40th anniversary celebration than singing this fantastic yet little-known work for you (the first and only SFS performances took place in 1928, with the San Francisco Municipal Chorus). SFS Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin is thrilled: “Mendelssohn was one of my musical childhood heroes. My mother had collected some of her musical favorites on a tape, and the music that gripped me the most was the first and the last movements of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. The First Walpurgis Night has very much of the same energy, while also pointing forward to Mendelssohn’s most mature masterpiece, Elijah.” As Chorus Manager at the San Francisco Symphony, it’s always really exciting for me when the Chorus gets to sing something they’ve never done before. So I was intrigued when I saw that the programming for the 2013-14 season included Mendelssohn’s secular cantata, The First Walpurgis Night, based on a text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Walpurgis Night is a traditional spring festival that takes place on the eve of May 1 in large parts of central and northern Europe when, as legend has it, witches and devils dance on the Brocken Peak of the Harz mountains in Germany. Goethe’s text puts a particular spin on the Walpurgis Night story: after a lively and evocative overture depicting the transition from winter to spring, The First Walpurgis Night opens with druids celebrating the arrival of May and preparing to celebrate their ancient rites. An alto solo follows, warning the druids that Christians will “slaughter our fathers and our children” should they recklessly pursue their celebrations.  The druids resolve to continue with their rites in the face of the warning, and one of them suggests that they dress up as devils during their celebrations to scare away the Christian priests. A celebratory chorus of druid worship follows—the climax and highlight of the piece—with revelers singing, “Come! With spikes and forks and with torches and rattling sticks we make noise through the night through the narrow rocky trails. Screechowl and owl join in our howling!” The terrified Christians are scared away by the demon ruse, and the cantata closes with the druids, led by their priest, singing a hymn of praise.

When I first listened to The First Walpurgis Night, my immediate thought was “wow, this sounds like just like an opera!”—and in many ways, the piece is just like a short opera. The evocative composition—from the beautiful, lyrical opening tenor aria by the druid priest to the loud clangor of the druid celebrations—easily allows the listener to imagine the characters as the action plays out. The soloists each play a particular character in the drama, and the Chorus, much like an opera chorus, represents characters and interacts with the soloists, creating more drama. The cantata is also through-composed (there is no break between movements, as one flows seamlessly to the next), creating a wonderful story arc. The Romantic topics dealt with by the piece—devils and rattling sticks, the contrast of winter and spring in the overture, and the struggle for religious freedom—add to the dramatic, opera-like setting, gripping the listener and pulling them further into the story. At times, the music shows striking similarities to Verdi opera choruses, while at others it is almost evocative of early Wagnerian melodic shifts.

Mendelssohn, born in Germany in 1809, first started work on The First Walpurgis Night in 1830. The text, written by Goethe, had originally been given to Mendelssohn’s teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter to set to music, but after several abortive attempts, Zelter found it impossible to compose a workable setting. Mendelssohn took on the task in 1830, and spent the next several years composing the first version of the cantata. Mendelssohn wasn’t satisfied, however, with the piece, and it wasn’t until 1843 (and many substantial revisions later) that the work was premiered in Leipzig under Mendelssohn’s baton. Hector Berlioz, upon hearing a rehearsal for the premiere, proclaimed that he was “strongly inclined to regard it as the finest thing that Mendelssohn has done.”

As can be seen from Mendelssohn’s many letters to his sister Fanny during the 1830s, he spent a lot of time and energy thinking about The First Walpurgis Night, and it was a work that occupied a lot of his creative time. Two things in particular struck me from these letters: The first was how much he debated the use of bass drums and piccolo in a work that needed to make an impact in the revelry scenes, no doubt because of the fairly conservative nature of his composing style. He wrote: “I am hovering in uncertainty whether in my music I shall use the bass drum or not. ‘Come with torches brightly flashing,’ really drives me to the big drum; but moderation counsels otherwise…I am undecided about it; we must have a great noise, in any event.”  Mendelssohn obviously overcame this worry, as the final version of the witches dance is probably his most raucous chorus, complete with bass drum and piccolo!

The second thing that struck me was how much fun the piece seemed to be for Mendelssohn. He described the piece as “merry enough,” stating “there is a great chance for fairy and witch frolics.” Furthermore, as he wrote about the end of the overture, he said, “the end has come out better than I dreamed; the spectre and the bearded druid with his trombone, in imagination, stand behind me and toot and make no end of fun for me, and so the morning goes merrily by.” This last passage in particular highlights the contrast inherent in the cantata: the obvious joy (glee, even) that Mendelssohn found in the composition and its reveling disguised druids, in the larger context of the underlying story of a real fear of religious persecution. This inherent dramatic tension and contrast is brought to life by the music—the lively overture representing the passing of winter to spring, the solemnity of the alto solo warning the revelers, the fear of the Christian guards, the excitement of the druids, and the final serene choral hymn of praise.

Which leads to the question: what is the true meaning behind Goethe’s text for the cantata and Mendelssohn’s interpretation thereof? Musicologists and historians have put forward a multitude of thoughts, describing the piece variously as a satire of medieval church practices, a reaction to Phariseeism, a Jewish protest against the domination of Christianity, and more simply a celebration of the advent of spring—something which Ragnar Bohlin, hailing from Sweden, “keenly feels and appreciates”, as opposed to us San Franciscans who never feel the icy hold of winter. In fact, Mendelssohn himself wrote to Goethe asking about the meaning of the text, to which Goethe replied: “this poem is, in its true sense, intended to be highly symbolic. For, in the history of the world, it must continually repeat itself that that which is old, and tried, and fundamental, and comforting, shall (although not annihilated), be pushed and moved and pressed into the smallest space by upstarting innovations. The medium-time, in which hatred can and may counteract, is here pregnantly enough represented, and a joyful, indestructible enthusiasm burns up again, glowing and bright.” These are powerful, thought-provoking words.

Those words moved Ragnar Bohlin to muse, “This makes one wonder if perhaps we are in the middle of such a paradigm shift ourselves, with ever-increasing technological advancements, new clean energy innovations, and a growing awareness of necessary changes in agriculture, nutrition, politics, etc., to best promote life on Earth.”

If you want to hear an intriguing, dramatic, and exciting piece of music, I can’t recommend Mendelssohn’s The First Walpurgis Night highly enough. I’m so spoiled, I’ll get to hear it three times—as part of my job, once the chorus is on stage, I sit in the audience and listen—and I can’t wait to hear this little-known musical gem!

—Elaine Robertson, September 2013