MUSICTEACHERS.CO.UK VOLUME 2 ISSUE 12, JUNE 2001  
Online Journal

OCR ADVANCED LEVEL NOTES

FELIX MENDELSSOHN: OVERTURE TO 'A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM'


Written when he was just seventeen years old, Mendelssohn's overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is a display of youthful genius. It was written in 1826, after the composer had been soaking up the works of the bard from Schegel and Tieck's translations. Years later, in the 1840s, the King of Prussia commissioned extra music to be inserted at various points throughout the play for a production at Potsdam. Mendelssohn's imagination was obviously captured by both the comic and magical aspects of the play, as he managed to embody them in his overture perfectly.

It should be realised, however, that the young Mendelssohn was no stranger to literature; he had immersed himself in it from an early age and, at the age of twelve, had been taken by his piano teacher Karl Zelter to meet the poet Goethe at Weimar. Indeed, it was two of Goethe's poems that later provided the inspiration and focus for another of Mendelssohn's concert overtures, Meeresstille und gl├╝ckliche Fahrt (1828).

The work is a marvellous early example of 'programme music', thus placing it firmly in the tradition of much early nineteenth century orchestral music (for further details, see the analysis of Mendelssohn's 'Hebrides' Overture).

Despite its romantic, programmatical nature, A Midsummer Night's Dream is, like his 'Hebrides' Overture, based on classical sonata principles; exposition (bar 1), development (bar 250) and recapitulation (bar 394) are all clearly discernable. Mendelssohn adds some masterly touches to the traditional sonata model, such as starting the work in the tonic key of E major, but switching to e minor after only seven bars to introduce the first subject. Supplementary to all of this, the structure of the piece hangs on the three appearances of the wind and horn's chords that open the work - these appearances are at bars 1, 394 and 682, providing pivots around which Mendelssohn could weave a flight of fancy. The subtle changes in orchestration of these chords, which accompany each appearance, show Mendelssohn's keen ear for orchestration, a major factor in the work's charm, since he extracts a glorious spectrum of colour from what are fairly standard orchestral forces for their time. It is interesting to see the inclusion of the ophecleide in the scoring. This is a keyed brass instrument, a development of the serpent (and, interestingly, a forerunner to the saxophone) that was used primarily in military bands. Throughout the nineteenth century, various other composers such as Berlioz, Verdi and Wagner introduced it into their orchestral scores, although it was eventually superseded by the bass tuba.

The musical interpretation of the play's themes and characters is achieved through a variety of means. The hushed, scurrying strings of the first subject bring a 'willow-the-wisp' quality evocative of the flurry of fairies' wings. Elsewhere, such as the passage beginning at bar 335, the repeated, descending pizzicato lines create an atmosphere of suspense, as the listener becomes uncertain as to where the music is heading in terms of tonality. The only explicit moment of characterisation occurs initially at bars 199-201, where the accented leaps in the violins and clarinets provide a hilarious impersonation of Bottom's donkey brays.



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