Mendelssohn: Fingal’s Cave Overture, Opus 26

JAKOB LUDWIG FELIX MENDELSSOHN

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

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

COMPOSED: Begun on August 7, 1829 with the first version completed in December 1831. Mendelssohn would continue to revise the work until the full score was published in 1835. This performance uses Mendelssohn’s London revision of 1832

WORLD PREMIERE: May 14, 1832 (in its not entirely final version). Thomas Attwood conducted the Philharmonic Society of London. On that occasion, the piece was called Overture of the Isles of Fingal

US PREMIERE: November 16, 1844. George Loder led the Philharmonic Society at the Apollo Rooms in New York

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 10 mins

THE BACKSTORY “Talent,” remarked a British wit, “is nature’s way of being unfair.” If this is so, nature was at its most unfair when it created Felix Mendelssohn, perhaps the most astonishing prodigy in the history of music—no offense to Bach or Mozart. He achieved absolute musical fluency at a young age (fluency as both a composer and a pianist), and by the time he was twenty-one he had been offered—and had turned down—the music professorship of the University of Berlin.

In Mendelssohn’s case, the talent was supported by privilege. He was born into a family that was cultured and wealthy; his grandfather was the noted philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and his father, Abraham, was a supremely successful banker (one remembered for his remark that he was destined to go down in history as his father’s son and his son’s father). As a result, young Felix, his gifted sister Fanny Cäcilie, and their younger sister Rebecka and brother Paul enjoyed certain perks as they moved through their childhood. One was that Felix had at his disposal a private orchestra to try out his new compositions at Sunday musicales in the family home in Berlin (where the Mendelssohns had moved when Felix was only two). Many of his lifelong friendships were developed during the years of the private house concerts; it was then that he grew close to Ferdinand David (the musician whom Mendelssohn blessed with his two violin concertos), Julius Schubring (the theologian who would go on to compile the texts for Mendelssohn’s oratorios), and Karl Klingemann (eleven years Mendelssohn’s senior, an accomplished amateur musician and a diplomat). Klingemann is at least partly to thank for the existence of the concert overture Fingal’s Cave, one of Mendelssohn’s most popular works.

In 1827, Klingemann left Berlin for London to serve as secretary to the Hanoverian legislation, and two years later he urged Mendelssohn to come for an extended visit. On March 26, 1829, Mendelssohn wrote him a breathless letter announcing that he expected to arrive in London in less than a month. And so in July, Mendelssohn and Klingemann began a journey from London to Edinburgh, a long and sometimes arduous trip by stagecoach that Mendelssohn documented through pencil drawings and pen-and-ink sketches. On July 26 they arrived in Edinburgh, and a few days later they set out on a tour of the Scottish Highlands, which took them as far west as the town of Oban and the Atlantic islands of Staffa and Iona, and then brought them south to Glasgow and back to England.

The first document directly related to the Fingal’s Cave Overture is a drawing, a view from Oban towards the Hebrides islands and Morven, dated August 7, 1829. It preceded by a few hours the letter Mendelssohn penned that evening in the island fishing village of Tobermory. “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me,” Mendelssohn wrote, “the following came into my mind there”—after which he sketches twenty-one measures of the piece we know today as Fingal’s Cave. The work’s fingerprint is already prominent in the germ of Mendelssohn’s conception.

Fingal’s Cave, seventy-six yards deep and sixty-six yards high, occupies the southern coast of the little island of Staffa, seven miles off the Scottish coast, and visitors of a Romantic disposition were drawn to the purple-black rock columns massed at its entrance, of which Keats wrote, “For solemnity and grandeur it far surpasses the finest cathedral.”

Given that Mendelssohn sketched the work’s opening before he set eyes on Fingal’s Cave, we might conclude that the Overture was not quite so directly inspired by that curious bit of geology as is often suggested. Instead, it seems to have been born more from a general impression of the Hebrides islands (of which Staffa does not happen to be an official part) and from Mendelssohn’s vivid romanticizing of the experience. In fact, the composition of this piece traces a terrifically convoluted trajectory, to which the name Fingal’s Cave became attached only late in the process. Mendelssohn continued working on the piece during his trip to Italy, in the autumn of 1830 (the same trip that would inspire his Italian Symphony), and on December 11, 1831, he completed the first version, which he titled Overture to the Lonely Island. Five days later, another autograph score was completed, incorporating several adjustments and boasting a different title: Die Hebriden (The Hebrides). But Mendelssohn was not yet satisfied with what he had composed. On June 6, 1832, he is thought to have presented another autograph score to the Philharmonic Society of London, this time called Overture to the Isles of Fingal.

THE MUSIC One looks in vain for explicit citations of Scottish music in this work. Unaware of the title, a listener would probably not identify the opening as a depiction of surging waves, guess that its boisterous development section represents a storm, or imagine the “veiled effects on trumpets” to sound as if they were “played through a curtain of water” (as did one early critic). Yet Mendelssohn provided here a concert piece of enduring popularity, one so finely crafted that it would not have been out of place as the first movement of a full symphony.James M. Keller

This note appeared originally in different form in the programs of the New York Philharmonic and is reprinted with permission. Copyright © New York Philharmonic.

(May 2019)