Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany, on February 3, 1809, and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847. Following the Mendelssohn family’s conversion from Judaism to Lutheranism—the children in 1816, the father in 1822—the members of the family appended the second name of Bartholdy to their surname; accordingly, the composer often identified himself as Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (with no hyphen).
He composed his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the midsummer of 1826, completing it on August 6. The piece is dedicated to the Prince of Prussia. The Overture was premiered shortly after it was written, at a private concert at the Mendelssohns’ home in Berlin; the first public performance was in February 1827, in Stettin, Germany. Mendelssohn himself played the timpani when the piece received its Paris premiere, at a concert of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, on February 19, 1832. It was first heard in the US at a concert of the New York Philharmonic Society, with George Loder conducting, in April 1843. Henry Hadley led the first San Francisco Symphony performances of the Overture, in January 1913; Herbert Blomstedt led the most recent performances, in April 2003. The score calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, ophicleide (a low-pitched, keyed brass instrument, a sort of bass bugle, now essentially obsolete and usually replaced by a tuba or a contrabassoon), timpani, and strings.
Mendelssohn returned to Shakespeare’s play in 1843, expanding his existing pieces to create an eleven-movement score that could be interpolated into theatrical presentations of the play. In that version, the music was first heard in a private performance of the play on October 18, 1843, at the Neuer Palais in Potsdam; the first public performance came four days later, at the Berlin Schauspielhaus. Mendelssohn himself led the first standalone concert of the incidental music on May 27, 1844, in London. The incidental music was first played in this country as part of a performance of the play at the Astor Place Opera House, New York, with Theodor Eisfeld conducting, in December 1849. This concert includes three of the most popular items from Mendelssohn’s “later” Midsummer Night’s Dream music: the Intermezzo, Notturno, Scherzo, and the Wedding March. The orchestration of these movements differs from that of the Overture in that the ophicleide (or substitute) is done without in the Scherzo; the Notturno dispenses with trumpets and timpani as well as the ophicleide. Mendelssohn himself led the first standalone concert of the Complete Incidental Music for A Midsummer’s Night Dream (without the play), on May 27, 1844, in London. The San Francisco Symphony has played music from A Midsummer’s Night Dream on many occasions, with selections performed in February 1913 under the baton of Henry Hadley; the most recent SFS performances of music from A Midsummer’s Night Dream, in March 2011, were led by Kurt Masur Performance time: about thirty-one minutes.
Mendelssohn composed Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night) from 1830 to 1832, to a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and revised it through 1843. He conducted the work’s premiere at the Berlin Singakademie on January 10, 1833, and also led the first performance of its revised version, on February 2, 1843, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. These are the first San Francisco Symphony subscription performances. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, and strings, in addition to solo voices (mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone or bass) and a mixed chorus. Performance time: about forty-five minutes.
“Talent,” a wit once observed, “is nature’s way of being unfair,” and if this is so, it was at its unfairest when it created Felix Mendelssohn, probably the most astonishing prodigy in the history of music. At a young age he achieved absolute musical fluency as both a composer and a pianist. Robert Schumann, one of the most perspicacious music critics of Mendelssohn’s time, called him the “Mozart of the nineteenth century; the most brilliant among musicians.” But even in such a lofty comparison Mendelssohn fares well: if we lost everything Mozart wrote before he turned eighteen, we would hardly feel the impact, whereas a similar deletion in Mendelssohn’s catalogue would deprive the world of such irreplaceable masterpieces as his delightful Octet and his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Half his life earlier, when he was nine, Mendelssohn gave his debut solo-piano concert (in which he played Jan Ladislav Dussek’s virtuosic Concert militaire), and before long he plunged into the detailed study of counterpoint, fugue, figured bass, and other skills deemed indispensable to a composer’s arsenal. While still a teenager he produced an impressive catalogue of works in various genres: operas, chamber music, keyboard solos and duets, sacred and secular choral works, songs. He had just passed his twentieth birthday when he directed the “modern premiere” of Johann Sebastian Bach’s by-then-forgotten Saint Matthew Passion, a historic event that launched the Bach revival of the nineteenth century.
His talent was supported by privilege. He was born into a family that was both cultured and wealthy; his grandfather was the noted philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and his father, Abraham, was a supremely successful banker remembered at least for his remark that he was destined to go down in history “as his father’s son and his son’s father.” Young Felix, his gifted sister Fanny, and their younger siblings Rebekka and Paul enjoyed certain perks as they moved through their childhood. Felix had a private orchestra at his disposal to try out his new compositions at every-other-Sunday musicales in the family home, at which the Mendelssohn children regularly hobnobbed with the rich and famous. The siblings profited from the finest music instruction that money could buy. Felix’s musical education included private lessons in piano and violin, as well as composition lessons from Carl Friedrich Zelter, who served as musical adviser to the literary lion Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
When Mendelssohn composed his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in July and August of 1826, he was just midway between his seventeenth and his eighteenth birthdays. It’s not surprising that an adolescent would be enamored of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play about love, magic, and how supernatural powers can bend the annoying rules of powerful adults. That such an adolescent might express his enthusiasm by writing one of the most enduring masterpieces in the repertory is, however, not something that could have been anticipated.
Shakespeare’s comedy was first printed in 1600, but it was probably written several years earlier. Samuel Pepys may have found it to be “the most insipid ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life,” but his was the voice of the minority. In Pepys’s own day A Midsummer Night’s Dream would enjoy an important musical adaptation as Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, and it would go on to achieve a place in the hearts of theatergoers, mostly through adaptations, both in England and abroad. Though the name of Shakespeare was known in German literary circles as early as 1682, his works found their first serious apologist in that country in Johann Elias Schlegel, whose eighteenth-century translations and critical writings served as the catalyst for what would become a German infatuation with Shakespeare. Between 1762 and 1766 the author Christoph Martin Wieland published eight volumes of Shakespeare’s works in German—all translated into prose with the sole exception of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he rendered in verse. This was the version that introduced Goethe and Heine to Shakespeare. Such dominant figures as Lessing, Herder, and other literary lions got on the Shakespeare bandwagon, and a spate of new translations began to appear. It seems that the Mendelssohn children learned their Shakespeare through the 1801 translation of Ludwig Tieck and August Wilhelm von Schlegel (a nephew of Johann Elias), who viewed Shakespeare as a fellow Romantic. They also read the bard selectively in the original English.
At the beginning of July 1826, Felix jotted a note to Fanny: “I have grown accustomed to composing in our garden; there I’ve completed two piano pieces in A major and E minor. Today or tomorrow I am going to dream there the Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is, however, an enormous audacity.” The music critic Adolf Bernhard Marx, a regular at the Mendelssohn family’s musicales and a friend of the young composer (who was fourteen years his junior), provided in his memoirs an inside account of what ensued:
At that time, too, Felix struggled for veracity and truthfulness in his own works. I can still see him [in 1826] entering my room with a heated expression, pacing up and down a few times, and saying: “I have a terrific idea! What do you think of it? I want to write an overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I expressed warm support for the idea. A few days later he, the happy, free one, was back again with the score, complete up to the second part. The dance of the elves with its introductory chords was as one would later know it. Then—well, then there followed an overture, cheerful, pleasantly agitated, perfectly delightful, perfectly praiseworthy—only I could perceive no Midsummer Night’s Dream in it. Sincerely feeling that it was my duty as a friend, I told him this in candor. He was taken aback, irritated, even hurt, and ran out without taking his leave. I let that pass and avoided his house for several days, for since my last visit, following that exchange, his mother and Fanny had also received me coldly, with something approaching hostility.
A few days later, the Mendelssohns’ slim manservant appeared at my door and handed me an envelope with the words “A compliment from Mr. Felix.” When I opened it great pieces of torn-up manuscript paper fell to the ground, along with a note from Felix reading: “You are always right! But now come and help.” Perhaps the very understanding, thoughtful father had made the difference; or perhaps the hotheaded young man had come to himself.
I did not fail to respond; I hurried over and explained that, as I saw it, such a score, since it serves as a prologue, must give a true and complete reflection of the drama. He went to work with fire and absolute dedication. . . . [T]he overture became the one we now know. Mother and sister were reconciled when they saw the composer rushing around in high excitement and pleasure. But during the first performance at his house, the father declared in front of the numerous assembly that it was actually more my work than Felix’s. This was naturally quite unjustified, whether it was merely to express his gratification at my behavior, or perhaps to give me satisfaction for the earlier defection of the womenfolk. The original idea and the execution belonged to Felix; the advice I had given was my duty and my only part in it.
Mendelssohn did not imagine his overture as a prelude to any performance of Shakespeare’s play, at least not when he wrote it. Unlike his Ruy Blas Overture, which was written for a stage production of Victor Hugo’s play, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was conceived as a concert overture, along the lines of the vaguely programmatic Fingal’s Cave or Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.
It might be best viewed as a sort of parallel depiction of certain of the play’s aspects: the magical aura suggested by the opening woodwind chords, the violins’ lighter-than-air scurrying of the fairies’ dance, the intrusion of moments of doubt and melancholy, the tender nostalgia of the strings’ theme that closes the piece.
All of Mendelssohn’s contemporaries seemed to have fallen instantly in love with this work. “The bloom of youth lies over it,” wrote Robert Schumann, “as it does over hardly any other of the composer’s works: it is an inspired moment the mature master made his first and highest flight.” Hector Berlioz, who was such an ardent Shakespeare fan that he married a Shakespearean actress with whom he did not share a common language, exclaimed in a letter to Mendelssohn, “I have never heard anything more deeply Shakespearean than your music.” Even Richard Wagner, whose roiling anti-Semitism usually prevented him from discovering an iota of value in Mendelssohn’s music, held his tongue when it came to this piece.
In the years that followed, Mendelssohn composed quite a few stage pieces, including operas (which are today obscure) and incidental music for such plays as Racine’s Athalie and Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. In 1843, King Friedrich Wilhelm asked Mendelssohn to revisit Shakespeare’s play with an eye toward setting the playwright’s songs and providing other bits of incidental music that might enliven a stage production. He found the composer at a busy moment. That year, Mendelssohn had assumed the direction of the newly formed all-male cathedral choir in Berlin, and he was also overseeing the symphonic concerts presented by the Berlin opera orchestra. In addition, he was Capellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and was intensely devoted to developing the curriculum and faculty of the newly established conservatory attached to that institution. But the thought of again immersing himself in Shakespeare’s play—and perhaps recapturing something of the carefree spirit of his charmed childhood—was impossible to turn down.
Some of Mendelssohn’s contributions were strictly instrumental, some were vocal, some were self-standing, some were meant to be interwoven with the play’s ongoing dialogue. Many of these pieces have become justifiably famous, including the bustling Scherzo with a prominent turn for solo flute, composed to accompany Puck’s encounter with an elf; the elegiac Nocturne, with its gorgeous horn solo, serving as an entr’acte following Act III of the play; or the Wedding March, written to serve as the Act V nuptial music for Theseus and Hippolyta, and without which millions of couples in the ensuing years would have been left standing at the altar wondering how to get on with their lives. In returning to the Midsummer Night’s Dream project, Mendelssohn brought to bear more than a decade of further experience as an orchestrator. It’s remarkable how all the music fits together as if it were the conception of a single happy moment.
In 1821, Zelter took Mendelssohn (then aged twelve) to meet the seventy-two-year-old Goethe, who was by then revered as the “sage of Weimar.” The eminent author and the fledgling composer struck up a deep-seated friendship during this fourteen-day visit, notwithstanding the degree to which the two were chronologically mismatched. They only spent time together on three occasions, in each case at Goethe’s home in Weimar: their initial visit in 1821, a very brief stay in 1825, and then a visit of perhaps a week in late May and early June of 1830. Nonetheless, they remained close friends and mutual admirers up until the poet’s death, in 1832, keeping in touch through correspondence either directly or through the intermediary of Zelter.
Mendelssohn composed several lieder, choral songs, and a concert aria to texts by Goethe, and he based his orchestral overture Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) on two of that author’s poems. But the cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht is the most extensive and impressive of his Goethe settings. Walpurgisnacht is a sort of Halloween of German folk tradition: on the night of April 30, witches are supposed to hold their festivities on the Brocken (or Blocksberg), the tallest of the Harz Mountains. Goethe, who had written his Walpurgisnacht ballad in 1799 and published it the following year, claimed that his work was based more on historical reality than on mere folk whimsy. He explained the gist of the poem to Zelter, who struggled with three musical settings of it before giving up:
It seems that the German heathen priests and elders, after they had been driven out of their holy groves and Christianity had been forced on the people, went with their faithful followers to the wild, inaccessible peaks of the Harz Mountains in the beginning of the spring, there (in the old way) to direct prayer and flame to the formless God of heaven and earth. Now, in order to secure against the armed missionaries who were tracking them, they found it good to disguise a number of themselves and thereby to hold their superstitious enemies at bay, and protected by devils’ masks, to fulfill the purest service of God.
Though Zelter failed to turn Goethe’s poem into a cantata, his star pupil would take on the project and achieve it with stunning success. In the spring of 1830, on Goethe’s suggestion, Mendelssohn embarked on a trip to Italy, and at the outset of his journey he stopped in Weimar for what would be their final visit. When he reached Rome (perhaps even a bit before then), he began working on Die erste Walpurgisnacht, which he would complete provisionally two years later in Paris. Goethe was delighted to learn that Mendelssohn was setting this text and sent the composer a further observation to clarify his philosophical intent:
The principles on which this poem is based are symbolic in the highest sense of the word. For in the history of the world, it must continually recur that an ancient, tried, established, and tranquilizing order of things will be forced aside, displaced, thwarted, and, if not annihilated, at least pent up within the narrowest possible limits by rising innovations. The intermediate period, when the opposition of hatred is still possible and practicable, is forcibly represented in this poem, and the flames of a joyful and undisturbed enthusiasm once more blaze high in brilliant light.
While in Rome, Mendelssohn made the acquaintance of Hector Berlioz, who was living there as laureate of the Prix de Rome, and the two were inseparable for a couple of weeks. Much though he liked Berlioz personally, Mendelssohn was not much smitten by his music, and in a letter home he particularly excoriated the “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” the finale of Berlioz’s brand-new Symphonie fantastique. Even though Mendelssohn found Berlioz’s piece outré, it must have proved stimulating given that Goethe’s text touched on similar territory, being about festivities of Druids and pagans who disguise themselves as supernatural beings. Indeed, at several points in the middle of this cantata we glimpse Mendelssohn at his most Berliozian.
The work enjoyed several private performances before its premiere, including one when Mendelssohn stopped in Milan to play it as a work-in-progress for Mozart’s son Carl. After the public premiere, in January 1833 (ten months after Goethe’s death), Mendelssohn withdrew the score, voicing misgivings about the piece. He repeatedly mentioned his desire to expand into a “symphony-cantata” along the lines of his Lobgesang Symphony, replacing the work’s overture with a suite of shorter pieces. In the end, the work’s structure remained essentially as it had been, and the overture remained untouched. By 1843 he completed revisions on the vocal movements, and the final version was prepared for its publication the following year. Berlioz attended the premiere of the revised version and provided a characteristically insightful commentary. Though complaining that he found Mendelssohn to be “rather too fond of the dead,” Berlioz offered an overwhelmingly positive assessment:
One must hear Mendelssohn’s music in order to form an idea of the diversity of opportunities the poem offers to a skillful composer. He has made admirable use of these opportunities. The score is of impeccable clarity, notwithstanding its complexity. Voices and instruments are completely integrated, running in opposite directions, even colliding, with an apparent disorder that is the perfection of art. I shall single out (as things of great beauty in two opposing genres) the mysterious section of the posting of the sentinels, and the final chorus, in which one hears the voice of the priest rising from time to time quiet and reverential above the infernal din of the false devils and witches. One scarcely knows what to admire most in this finale—the orchestral or the choral writing, or the whirlwind movement of the whole!
The Overture begins with the swirling storms of winter (Das schlechte Wetter—Bad Weather); the cascading descent of a string motif may bring to mind the storm scene of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. The blizzards finally yield to Maytime (Der Übergang zum Frühling—The Transition to Spring) in a passage that seems to prefigure Brahms’s Second Symphony. The Overture melds seamlessly into the next movement; in fact, all the work’s sections succeed one another attacca, without pauses between. A rising call from horns and bassoon foreshadows the melody that bursts forth fully in the opening Druidic hymn “Es lacht der Mai!” (“May is laughing”), an effective musical suggestion of the metamorphosis of spring and, indeed, of Goethe’s idea of continual innovation.
The listener will have no trouble keeping up with the action. In the first four numbers (following the Overture), the Druids lament their suffering under Christian oppressors, stoke their sacrificial fires (the violas’ arpeggiated figure spreading to other instruments and shifting to a dotted rhythm as the kindling ignites), and prepare their guards to protect them. In the second half—numbers 5 through 9—the Druids and pagans disguise themselves as diabolical creatures to frighten away the Christians who they will try to disrupt their festivities. The frenzy peaks in section 6, which would qualify as a vaguely Berliozian span. The Christians flee at the opening of section 9, leaving the Druids to resume their rites with hymnic exaltation.
The finale occasioned some amusement for Mendelssohn’s nephew, Sebastian Hensel (whose mother, Felix’s beloved sister Fanny, had suffered a fatal stroke while conducting Die erste Walpurgisnacht in a rehearsal). In a memoir about his family, he recalled that after one performance a pious member of the audience complimented the composer on the “beautiful, redeeming, and elevating Christian chorus at the end”—which, of course, it is not, despite its ecclesiastical, chorale-like flavor. Instead, it’s the statement of a Druid priest and a group of his decidedly un-Christian followers—and this concluding a work in which the Christians are cast unequivocally as the “bad guys.” In the course of the piece, listeners have heard not only the Druid Priest (baritone) but also a procession of other nearly operatic characters: a Druid (solo tenor), an Old Woman of the Heathen (mezzo-soprano), a Druid Guard (baritone or bass-baritone), a Christian Guard (tenor), and a chorus variously deployed as a full mixed double chorus, as men’s and women’s choruses, and as a small ensemble of Christian Guards.
Mendelssohn leaves his fingerprints everywhere, and listeners who have fallen into the habit of thinking of the composer only in terms of deft buoyancy will find their conception of him expanded by this work, filled as it is with wild swings of mood, bold strokes of orchestration, and powerful dramatic contrasts. Spurred on by Goethe’s forceful text, Mendelssohn created a work of impressive power whose music is as masterly as one would expect of a piece written at about the same time as The Hebrides overture and the Italian Symphony.
—James M. Keller
More About the Music
Recordings: For A Midsummer Night’s Dream—These recordings present Mendelssohn’s incidental music complete or very close to complete: Kurt Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Leipzig Radio Chorus, with soloists Edith Wiens and Christiane Oertel, and with Friedhelm Eberle delivering a narration in German (Atlantic; also on Warner Classics) | André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Finchley Children’s Music Group, with soloists Lillian Watson and Delia Wallace (EMI Classics Encore) | Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, with soloists Kathleen Battle and Frederica von Stade, with a narrative from Judi Dench (Deutsche Grammophon) | Claus Peter Flor conducting the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with soloists Lucia Popp and Mariana Lipovček (RCA) | Philippe Herreweghe conducting the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées (Harmonia Mundi) | Neville Marriner conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Philips)
For Die erste Walpurgisnacht—Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera Chorus and Vienna Singverein (Decca) | Kurt Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Leipzig Radio Chorus (Berlin Classics) | Kent Nagano conducting the Bavarian State Orchestra and Audi Academy Youth Choir (Farao)
Reading Mendelssohn, Goethe, and the Walpurgis Night: The Heathen Muse in European Culture, 1700-1850 (Eastman Studies in Music), by John Michael Cooper (University of Rochester Press) | Goethe and Mendelssohn (1821-1831), by Karl Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, edited by W.E. von Glehn (MacMillan) | Mendelssohn: A Life in Music, by R. Larry Todd (Oxford) | A Portrait of Mendelssohn, by Clive Brown (Yale University Press) | The Mendelssohn Companion, edited by Douglas Seaton (Greenwood Press) | The Mendelssohn Family, 1729-1847, by Sebastian Hensel (Harper & Brothers)