Mendelssohn: Overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
Key: E major
No. of bars: 686
Structure: Sonata form
||The piece opens with four poised
woodwind chords; E major-B major-a minor-E major. At bar 6, the upper strings
change E major to e minor with an additional held chord. This darkening of the
tonality then sparks off the violins with electrically-charged quavers, which
set the piece in motion. Bars 8-15 stay in e minor, and are repeated before the
tonality begins to wander through bars 24-31, although e minor is quickly
restored at 32 by the opening quaver figure. The violins' momentum is broken by
a punctuating cadence in the wind section at bar 39. Bars 24-40 are then
repeated, with part of the violas' pizzicato accompaniment moved to the
second violins. Other slight alterations are made such as the addition of a
tonic pedal (e) in bars 51-54.A further 4 bars of similar violin texture
complete the section.
||Although not particularly theme-like
in character, the first violins' quavers in bar 8 act as the first subject of
this sonata-based structure. This is somewhat curious as the first subject is
traditionally in the tonic key (E major), but Mendelssohn has switched it here
to the tonic minor.
||The expected cadence onto chord I of
e minor is replaced by a sudden change back to the original tonic of E major,
heard in the full orchestra, played fortissimo. A predominantly scalic
four-bar motif in the first violins is played twice and followed by bold,
repeated tonic chords and plagal cadences. At bar 78 the wind and brass begin
to rhythmically augment this scalic idea, which is featured using imitative
entries over an energetic tonic pedal in the lower strings. As the minim
descending scales disappear with the ophecleide in bars 90-93, the music starts
to move from a tonic of E, culminating in bar 97 with an F-sharp major
dominant-seventh harmony (dominant of the dominant).
||The music cadences in bar 98 onto B
major, the dominant key of the piece, which then sees development of the first
subject in the violins by presenting it in rising harmonic contexts (B major in
bar 98, c-sharp minor in bar 106, and E major in bar114). A chromatic bass line
in bars 119 leads the harmony onto a chord of F-sharp major three bars later,
and this harmony is sustained for eight bars, acting as a dominant preparation
for the new key of B major.
||This use of B major (the dominant) at
bar 98, although not yet firmly established, shows a preparation for the
movement to this key, which accompanies the arrival of the second subject in
bar 130. The dominant key is traditionally the most common key used for second
subjects in sonata form movements.
||The clarinets present the second
subject in B major. This theme is played over a bass line that descends down a
B major scale (possibly relating to the descending wind scales starting at bar
78?). A sumptuous chromatic string line takes over at bar 138 over a tonic
pedal. This figure is repeated with slightly thicker orchestration and at bar
162 the violins begin to develop the falling scalic part of it (originally bar
140-141). The wind and brass then play a tonic-dominant fanfare, reaffirming B
major as the new tonic.
The violins' descending line from bars 138-140 is then developed from bar 168
onwards, with the chromaticism removed. The diminished seventh chord that makes
up bars 188-191 brings a momentary harmonic tension, which is released by the
following diving scale to resolve once more onto B major.
|Second subjects are traditionally
more 'feminine' in character than first subjects, and here we see no exception
to this rule; the theme is smoother and much more relaxed than its counterpart.
This character is partly achieved through the use of mainly minim and crotchet
note values; the dashing quavers have now disappeared.
||The cellos, basses, horns, ophecleide
and timpani take up a repeated tonic pedal. In bar 195 the oboes, bassoons and
violas add an F-sharp to create a 'bare-fifths' rustic drone. This serves as
the accompaniment to a new theme played by the violins and flutes which is
constructed from a jauntily oscillating three-note cell followed by a wide,
accented downward leap of a ninth, the rhythm of which seems to relate back to
the accented plagal cadences in bars 71-72. Imitative writing follows in the
strings and at bar 214 the full orchestra enters to develop the ninth leaps
from bars 199-201, which are here extended to tenths in the violins and
The plagal cadences of bars 72 return at bar 223, where they are transposed to
reiterate B major. At bar 230 the material from bar 62 returns, also transposed
into B major, leading to further plagal cadences and finally a resounding
descending B major harmony in bars 247-249 to close the exposition.
|Bars 222-249 constitute the closing
passage of the exposition, in which the dominant key is convincingly
established as the new tonal centre.
||A sudden switch to b minor (the
dominant minor) sets the violins off with the first subject material, which is
then used imitatively in bars 258-263.The cellos descend though an f-sharp
minor scale in bars 264-270, accompanied by a diminished seventh harmony, which
leads the music into that key at 270. Here the first subject material in the
violins is accompanied by imitative f-sharp minor arpeggio figures in the
woodwind. Further imitation of the first subject follows, similar to that in
bars 258-263. At bar 284 the wind section takes up a staccato rhythm based on a
diminished seventh harmony, which relates back to fanfare-figure in bars
166-168. This falls back into the tonic minor (e minor) at bar 290, with
fragmented imitation in the wind and brass of the fanfare figure.
The violas slide down a harmonic b minor scale in bars 294-298 (a drawn out,
minor version of that in the violins in bar 97) to arrive briefly back in the
dominant minor at bar 298.Bars 306-312 temporarily increase the harmonic pace
over a rising bass line, but with the strong perfect cadence into D major at
bar 316 the music reaches a harmonic plateau for eight bars.
The development of the first subject is heard for the first time in the cellos
and basses from bar 324 underneath long woodwind chords, ending in bar 334 on a
c-sharp minor harmony.
|A relatively small amount of material
from the exposition is used in the development section. Of equal importance to
thematic development, therefore, is the destabilising of the tonality.
There are two main thematic cells explored in the development section; the
opening of the first subject, which is confined to the string section, and the
fanfare-like, tonic-dominant feature in the wind and brass in bars 166-168. The
development of this feature is done by the wind, brass and percussion, thus
creating two simultaneous threads of development in different halves of the
The hushed pp dynamic of most of the development section, contrasted by
the occasional ff notes in the horns, create a sense of magical
suspense.The four-note wind arpeggio figures starting at bar 270 possibly
relate subtlety to the four chords that open the work, as the top notes of
these chords form a rising four-note E major arpeggio.
||A pizzicato descending scale
is heard in the violins and cellos against an arco pedal note. This eight bar
passage is then repeated twice, each time at a slightly higher pitch. The
woodwind and brass add punctuating cadences at the end of each of these
phrases.At bar 358 the previous descending pizzicato scale is replaced by an
arco scale in the violins, against which the woodwind play a rising scale to
produce a contrary-motion effect.
The cellos continue the sinking line to settle on a c-sharp minor chord in bar
374.The texture thins out at bar 376, and for the first time in the development
section reference is made to the second subject material; the first violins
play a fragmented development of the thematic material from bar 138-141.The
repetition of this, interspersed with pauses, slows the texture down to a halt,
closing the development section on quiet, repeated c-sharp minor chords (n.b.
this harmony is the relative minor of E major, the tonic key of the work).
|The descending scale idea here
derives from those in the wind in bars 78-84.
||The recapitulation begins with a
subtle slip into E major, as the initial E major chord in the flutes is
harmonised by a c-sharp in the bass, after which the original progression
Three extra bars of a sustained E major chord are added at bar 399 before the
first subject races off again. The orchestration is basically the same, with
the main material in the string section, but with the wind and brass adding
points of colour to the texture.
The repeat of the exposition material is abridged here, and after only 33 bars
(i.e. at bar 442) the music skips forward to prepare for the second subject
with further fragmentary development of the first subject over a B major
harmony (acting as a dominant preparation). The oboe hints at the second
subject before it arrives through its falling scale in bars 440-441, relating
to the violin line at 460-461.
||The second subject appears this time
in the tonic key of E major. From here on the music is an almost exact (but
transposed) repeat of bars 130-222.At bar 542 the descending wind scales, which
had initially preceded the second subject, appear again, in the same key as
their original form and with an added timpani roll. These scales are developed
in bars 554-585, taking the music briefly through f-sharp minor (bars 554-562)
before returning to E major.
A strong perfect cadence in E major at 586 brings back the rapid descending
scales of bar 231 (and originally bar 62), and the accented plagal cadences
lead to a strong conclusion in the tonic key in bars 608-619, in much the same
way as the close of the exposition.
|Mendelssohn is following the
traditional sonata principles of tonally unifying the thematic material in the
recapitulation. However, the order in which the thematic material is presented
is differs from the exposition.
||The chord that begins bar 620 has a
finality about it that could lead one to think it is the closing sound of the
whole work; the violins however once more take up the first subject material
(in e minor) in a manner the same as the opening of the development section.
The music that follows also has similarities to early parts of the development
section; at bar 628 the four-note arpeggio figure that appeared at bar 270 is
played against the first subject material. At first, this arpeggio is condensed
into half the time of the original, showing further development, even at this
late stage of the piece. Its last appearance restores the minim spacing of the
original.The violins' quaver movement comes to an abrupt halt in bar 643, where
it is interrupted by sustained chords over a B pedal note in the horns. This
resolves onto the tonic in bar 658, but the bassoons add a c-sharp to the chord
to make it an interrupted cadence in E major. Here the tempo is reduced and,
against a thinned background of wind and brass colour, the strings intro a
reminiscence of the E major descending scale material from bars 63-65. This is
repeated with the quavers drawn out into triplet crotchets. The harmonic pace
slows down and a tonic pedal in the cellos starting at bar 674 initiates the
closing of the piece. The sustained E major tonic chord in the strings is
followed by the original four wind chords that began the work, although there
are small alterations to their scoring.
||Mendelssohn surprises the listener by
adding a coda, which diverges from the triumphant ending that seemed to be
approaching in the previous bars. The four chords that end the piece provide an
aesthetic balance to the structure. Despite the early efforts of the coda to
take the work to an e minor conclusion, the wind passage in bars 643-662
eventually leads the music back to E major, the tonic key of the work.