Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream
Incidental Music (1843)
For 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 2 Horns, 2 Trumpets, Timpani, and Strings
About the Composer
Arguably one of the most gifted and versatile prodigies in music history, Felix Mendelssohn was a beacon for German music in the mid 19th-century. He earned his reputation as a conductor, pianist, organist, and above all, composer, whose musical style was fully developed before he was twenty. Like many composers of his generation, Mendelssohn was influenced by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. His music reflects the fundamental tension between Classicism and Romanticism present in the works of 19th-century German composers. Mendelssohn was born into a prominent Jewish family—his grandfather was the pre-eminent philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who argued for religious tolerance and the assimilation of German Jews into German culture—however at the age of seven he was secretly baptized in the Protestant church. He received his musical education alongside his sister Fanny; both children portrayed exquisite virtuosity at the piano and soon after an extraordinary mastery for composition. Although Mendelssohn’s life was ended far too soon by a series of strokes in 1847, his musical output—including orchestral music, chamber works, keyboard music, oratorios, and vocal works—exceeded the expectations of his thirty-eight years of life.
About the Music
The Mendelssohn family home in Berlin was filled with arts and culture and became a meeting place for the most inspiring intellectuals and artists of the day. The family hosted regular Sunday musicales where, in addition to aloud readings of the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays, many of Mendelssohn’s compositions received their first performances. In the summer of 1826 Mendelssohn encountered Schlegel’s edition of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in his family library and wrote to his sister that he would soon begin to “dream the Midsummer Night’s Dream.” By early August he had finished the concert overture; he was only seventeen years old.
According to Bernard Shaw it was the “most striking example of a very young composer astonishing the world by a musical style at once fascinating, original and perfectly new.” The first performance, however, was given privately in the Mendelssohn’s home by Felix and Fanny as a piano duet. The overture received its public premiere in February 1827, and its popularity hasn’t faded since. It immediately sets the scene for Shakespeare’s work with four simple, but incredibly compelling, woodwind chords that transport the audience into a dreamlike state and into Shakespeare’s magical forest. Throughout the overture Mendelssohn is able to capture all the vivacious characters of Shakespeare’s masterpiece including the fairies, young lovers, and of course Bottom the Weaver turned into a donkey.
The king of Prussia, Frederick William IV, greatly admired Mendelssohn’s works and in August 1843 he asked Mendelssohn to compose incidental music for a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Almost two decades after the successful public premiere of the overture, Mendelssohn revisited his childhood love for Shakespeare and created some of his most celebrated music; he left the overture untouched. Although seventeen years separate the overture from the rest of the incidental music, Mendelssohn was able to create an incredibly unified and seamless work of theatrical music. The entire work when performed is about an hour in length and includes narration and chorus.
Tonight, you will hear our custom selection including the Scherzo, Nocturne, Wedding March, and Finale. The Scherzo introduces Act II of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Mendelssohn immediately paints the canvas of Shakespeare’s beloved fairy world. In the Nocturne, Mendelssohn highlights the horn to create a stunningly beautiful and at the same time haunting depiction of night. You will undoubtedly recognize the Wedding March, which serves as the entr’acte between Act IV and V. In his finale for the work, Mendelssohn recapitulates earlier music, namely the opening four wind chords; however, like the characters in Shakespeare’s play, it seems forever changed by its journey through the woods.