Mendelssohn: The Hebrides Overture (Fingal's Cave)

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Lakeview Orchestra will perform Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture on Tuesday, February 5th at 7:30PM at the Athenaeum Theatre.

The Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26 (1830 – 1832)
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 – 1847)

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was, by any measure, a creative prodigy. It is one thing to mimic adults who put words into your mouth, or play music written by others, but it is entirely another thing to actually write those words and compose that music yourself. While it is true that Wolfgang Mozart, Frederic Chopin, and Alexander Scriabin all composed some first-rate music before they were 16, the fact remains that their early music was derivative – that is, based on pre-existing compositional models. In no way is that statement meant to demean these miraculously talented composers. But not even Mozart started composing genuine masterworks until he was 18, and as we all know, Mozart was a musical freak. This brings us to the extraordinary case of Felix Mendelssohn. Simply put, when it came to child prodigies, Mendelssohn left them all in the dust, including the original boy wonder, Wolfgang Mozart.

Coming from an affluent, intellectual family, Mendelssohn’s forebears included the Jewish philosopher and father of Reform Judaism, Moses Mendelssohn (1729 – 1786), the court deputy who oversaw the imperial finances of both King Frederick II the Great and King Frederick William II of Prussia, Daniel Itzig (1723 – 1799), and the founder of Mendelssohn & Co., Joseph Mendelssohn (1770 – 1848). Mendelssohn & Co. was one of the preeminent banking houses in Europe until 1938, when the Nazis’ Aryanization policy forcibly nationalized the institution into Deutsch Bank. Mendelssohn’s mother was a fashionable, learned woman who played piano and sang. She spoke and read German, French, English, Italian, and Greek. It was mainly through his mother that Mendelssohn was encouraged to explore as much as possible of what the world had to offer, including travel to further his education and gain a better cultural understanding of human society.

At 20 years of age, Mendelssohn began his sojourn in Scotland with his friend, Karl Klingemann, eventually making their way to the Hebrides Islands off the west coast of Scotland. After seeing the stunning scenery in the Hebrides, Mendelssohn composed the opening bars of his overture, sending it to his sister Fanny with this note:  “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.” The following day he and Klingemann ventured to Fingal’s Cave (named after the character Fingal, from a third-century Gaelic tale) on the uninhabited Island of Staffa. The cave is formed entirely from hexagonally jointed basalt columns. It has an unnavigable sea inlet and a giant arched roof, and it is filled with the echoing, eerie sounds produced by the breaking waves from the water beneath. The Gaelics referred to it as the "cave of melody." Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832) described Fingal's Cave as "one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld. It exceeded, in my mind, every description I had heard of it …composed entirely of basaltic pillars as high as the roof of a cathedral, and running deep into the rock, eternally swept by a deep and swelling sea, and paved, as it were, with ruddy marble…"

Mendelssohn completed the first draft of The Hebrides Overture in Rome, in late 1830. Unhappy with this first attempt, he continued to revise the work for the next three years. Of particular distress to Mendelssohn was the middle section, about which he said, “The forte, D Major middle section is very silly and the entire so-called development tastes more of counterpoint than of whale oil, seagulls and salted cod.” Whale oil notwithstanding, the work was premiered on May 14, 1832 by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Still not completely satisfied, Mendelssohn revised the work further until it was finally published in 1833. The two titles (The Hebrides and Fingal’s Cave) provide an interesting dilemma. Originally titled Die Einsame Insel (The Lonely Island), Mendelssohn changed the name, rather confusingly using the title “Hebrides Overture” on the orchestral parts, but “Fingal’s Cave” on the full score. Canonically, the work is titled The Hebrides; however, the subtitle Fingal’s Cave is also acceptable.

Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides was a new type of overture that emerged during the nineteenth-century, referred to as the “concert overture.” Concert overtures are not drawn from a stage work or opera; rather, they are stand-alone works to be programmed as an overture in a concert hall. The Hebrides Overture is not programmatic, in the sense that it does not follow a narrative or tell a story. Yet it is thoroughly evocative of the sea and the scenery Mendelssohn experienced during his time in the Hebrides and Fingal’s Cave. The opening motif that Mendelssohn sketched – and sent to his sister after viewing the Hebrides – is a mysterious, arpeggiated fragment outlined in the minor key of B. The motif is repeated several times, rising higher and higher. It begins in the lower depths of the orchestra for maximum drama, with the bassoon, viola, and cello receiving the melodic material. As the theme rises in the orchestra to the violins, the lower voices begin an undulating pattern of sixteenth notes that is present throughout most of the work, representing the ebb and flow of the sea, while dramatic crescendos and quick accents of sound allude to crashing sea waves upon the rocks.

The second theme of the work is a more sprawling and soaring melody in the major mode. Again introduced by the lower instruments (bassoons and celli), the theme maintains the mysterious nautical tone of the overture. The opening motif is later transformed to a martial rhythm in the orchestra before beginning a somewhat jauntier section filled with dotted rhythms and staccato statements. This section begins with very soft iterations of the opening fragment, answered by militaristic figures from the winds. It then modifies and truncates the opening motif into short staccato statements passed throughout the orchestra before the clarinet returns the peaceful ambiance with its statement of the expansive second theme, leading directly into the extended coda. The work ends with a repeated, haunting statement of the opening motive in the clarinet, passed onto the flute, with an ascending minor arpeggio accompanied by pizzicato strings as the music slowly fades off into the distant black of musical void.

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture on February 5th, 2019: Learn More or Get Tickets

Program notes by Luke Smith.

Luke Smith