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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM by Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn's score for William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is probably the most famous incidental music ever written. Mendelssohn composed the miraculous overture as a 17-year-old, and the incidental music dates from 1843, near the end of his life, which was cut short by a pair of strokes four years later.
Mendelssohn had grown up in the most intellectually stimulating circumstances imaginable. He was the grandson of one of the brightest stars in the firmament of German Enlightenment thinkers, Moses Mendelssohn, and the son of one of Berlin's most successful bankers. The Mendelssohn household at Leipziger Strasse No. 3 was a hub of intellectual and cultural activity, often visited by figures like Alexander von Humboldt and G.W.F. Hegel.
Felix and his sister Fanny were inordinately gifted musicians, and their sister Rebecca was an adept linguist who could read Homer in the original Greek. The children were tutored in English, French, and German, and when they weren't playing or making music, they read voraciously. Shakespeare was a favorite, and Felix and his sisters would read the plays aloud, acting out the different parts.
A favorite was A Midsummer Night's Dream, with its fairies, elves, and magic spells easily capturing the children's imaginations. When a translation of the play by August Wilhelm Schlegel (whose brother married Felix's aunt), made with the help of Ludwig Tieck, became part of the Mendelssohns' library in 1826, Felix began to appreciate the play's musical potential, and he started composing what would become the overture. The translations were unlike any made before, painstakingly executed, with the translators usually going through a dozen or more versions of each line before deciding on the German equivalent that best captured the spirit of the English text. They were full of rich poetic imagery, just the stuff to stoke the fires of Felix's imagination.
The overture opens with four of the most evocative chords in music. The rather imaginative writer Heinrich Eduard Jacob claimed, in his biography of the composer, that Mendelssohn had scribbled the chords after hearing an evening breeze rustle the leaves in the garden of the family's home; whatever their inspiration, the chords beguilingly invite the listener into the magical forest outside of Athens where the comedy plays out. Scurrying staccato strings depict the fairies darting through the woods, and the full orchestra proclaims the noble lovers' music. A series of accented, fortissimo chords in the low strings and brass pound out an earthy rhythm for the Mechanicals before the orchestra gives us a musical picture of Bottom, braying after Puck's mischievous magic has transformed him into an ass. After a development section, Mendelssohn recapitulates the theme for the lovers, Bottom's hee-hawing, and the fairy music before a passage of gentle modulation in the winds opens the coda. The strings play a serenely beautiful transformation of the lovers' theme before the overture ends as it began, with those four magical chords.
The overture was premiered in Stettin, at a concert conducted by the composer Carl Loewe, in February of 1827. The concert was Mendelssohn's first public appearance, with him and Loewe as soloists in the A-flat-major double piano concerto and Mendelssohn alone at the keyboard for Weber's daunting F-minor Konzertstück; after intermission, he joined the first violins for a performance of Beethoven's Ninth. Needless to say, this musical extravaganza, along with the earlier success of the Op. 20 Octet, vaulted the 18-year-old Mendelssohn to the forefront of German musicians.
By August of 1843, when he was invited to pick up where his overture had left off, Mendelssohn was seen by the musical avant garde (Liszt, Berlioz, and the young Wagner) as a conservative, his obsession with Bach and his unwillingness to wear his heart on his sleeve (most likely a symptom of his genteel, bourgeois upbringing) two strikes against him. But the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV, liked Mendelssohn's music and enjoyed drama, especially the plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and other writers of Greek antiquity. A successful adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone for the stage of the royal palace in Potsdam in 1841 led to a series of invitations from the king to compose incidental music, resulting in scores for Racine's Athalie, Sophocles' Oedipus, and the present numbers for A Midsummer Night's Dream.
For the performance at Potsdam on October 14, 1843, Mendelssohn returned to his overture for inspiration, using its themes to craft an integrated score for the play. The original overture precedes Act I, which was performed without music. The Scherzo acts as an intermezzo between Acts I and II. With its sprightly scoring, dominated by chattering winds and dancing strings, it introduced the scene of Act II, the forest outside of Athens, filled with fairies on Midsummer's Eve.
The Scherzo leads directly into the first melodrama, a passage of text spoken over music, in this case, setting up Oberon's arrival. A fairy march accompanies his entrance, scored with triangle and cymbals to highlight the march rhythm and add transparency to the music.
The first of the score's two concerted vocal pieces, "You spotted snakes," opens Act II's second scene, as Titania's attendants sing incantations to protect their queen as she sleeps. Oberon enters the glade, and an eerie ascending figure in the first violins accompanies him as he squeezes the flower, dripping its nectar onto the sleeping Titania's eyelids.
The second Intermezzo, following the close of the second act, depicts Hermia's mental state, thinking her beloved Lysander has forsaken her. A quaint march for the entrance of the Mechanicals follows. As the act progresses, we hear music quoted from the overture to accompany the action. The tranquil Nocturne, with its solo horn doubled by bassoons, plays as the lovers sleep between Acts III and IV. We hear only one melodrama in Act IV, as Oberon lifts the spell he cast on Titania. Appropriately, Mendelssohn recalls the eerie violin figure which accompanied the original flower-squeezing, inverting it as Oberon undoes the spell. The melodrama closes with a reprise of the Nocturne to accompany the mortal lovers' sleep.
The intermezzo between Acts IV and V is none other than the famous Wedding March, perhaps the most popular number ever composed by Mendelssohn. It accompanies a triple wedding for Demetrius and Helena, Lysander and Hermia, and Theseus and Hippolyta. The fifth and final act contains more music than any other, to accompany the wedding feast. A brief fanfare for trumpets and timpani introduces the prologue to the Mechanicals' masque, "Pyramus and Thisby." A little parody of a funeral march accompanies the death of the title characters, whose epilogue Theseus declines to see in favor of a Bergomask dance. The dance uses Bottom's braying from the overture as its main thematic material.
The play itself has three brief epilogues. The first, spoken by Puck and introduced with a reprise of the theme of the Wedding March and the fairy music of the overture, takes the listener from the celebration of the banquet back to the mystery and shadows of the enchanted forest. After Puck's speech, Oberon and Titania begin the incidental music's finale, "Through this house give glimmering light," a chorus for the fairies with solos for the soprano and mezzo-soprano heard earlier in Act II. As the chorus, which recalls the overture's fairy music, dies away, Puck begins his famous "If we shadows have offended," his final lines accompanied by the four chords as day breaks. The score ends as it began; the chords, once pregnant with events to come, have borne their fruit, now evoking hazy memories of the comedy they introduced.