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Felix Mendelssohn
Overture: The Hebrides


The genesis of Mendelssohn's overture, The Hebrides, can be pinpointed to 7 August, 1829, when the composer was staying on the Isle of Mull during a tour of Scotland with his friend Carl Klingemann. He wrote home on that evening, including with the letter a sketch of the opening bars of this work, explaining the profound effect the landscapes had on him. There is considerable evidence to suggest, however, that Fingal's Cave, a geological feature on the tiny isle of Staffa, was not the source of his inspiration for this work, a view often misheld. The reason for this is that Mendelssohn did not, in fact, travel near this isle until the day after he had written the letter home. It is more likely that his imagination had been caught by the scenery as he travelled along Loch Linnhe and from Oban to Tobermory. The probable misconception was compounded by the composer's title on the first draft of the work of Die einsame Insel ('The Lonely Island'), and it seems likely to have been the publisher's idea to call the publication of the full score and the 1833 piano-duet arrangement Fingals Hohle ('Fingal's Cave').

Dissatisfaction with his first attempt at drafting the work led to a gap of around three years between the conception of the opening thematic material and the completed manuscript. Typical of his self-criticism is his famous comment of early 1832; 'The loud D major section in the middle is very stupid, and the so-called development section smacks more of counterpoint than of train oil, gulls and salted cod'.

The Hebrides is an interesting exemplification of Mendelssohn's musical style in its mixture of Classical and Romantic attributes. The shadow of earlier composers had long been evident in his musical language, especially the refinement of Mozart, with whom he seems to have shared a great sense of musical proportion and phrasing. His study of Bach helped him to develop contrapuntal skills that permeate much of his music (amongst his organ works he wrote several fugues), and Mendelssohn was in no small part responsible for a greater inspection of and admiration for Bach's work following his famous 1829 performance of the St. Matthew Passion.

The Classical traits of this work lie chiefly in its form, which is based firmly on the sonata principle. The three main sections, the exposition, development and recapitulation (with added coda) are all clearly defined, and, according to the general Classical model, the work unites in the recapitulation the differing tonalities of the first and second subjects. The size of orchestra employed in The Hebrides (and in Mendelssohn's works in general) also points back to the previous generation; compare it to the forces used by Berlioz in his Symphonie Fantastique in 1830.

The early nineteenth century saw two developments in music that are relevant to this piece. Firstly, there was the emergence of programme music, in which composers infused music with poetic, literary and narrative ideas. In A History of Western Music, Grout points out that this was done 'not by means of rhetorical-musical figures or by imitation of natural sounds and movements, but by imaginative suggestion'. It should be noted, however, that the term programme music was actually coined by Liszt later in the century. Secondly, there was a gradual awareness and appreciation of the beauty of nature in the arts, something that manifested itself in both the work of composers, painters and literary figures (the poets Heine and Goethe, for example). Early 'programmatic' music, in the nineteenth-century sense, is generally considered to have started with Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and a fascination with nature can be seen in other composers such as Weber (in, for example, Der Freischütz). Therefore the fact that Mendelssohn should be inspired by rugged Scottish scenery to write a work evocative of its atmosphere fits well into this Romantic musical trend.

Despite Grout's comments, the opening of The Hebrides certainly contains examples of natural phenomena depicted in music; the repetition of the opening motif, with its gently undulating shape, is surely a depiction of the waves incessantly lapping around the islands. Also, the depiction of rain during the development (from bar 149) is especially vivid in the way the staccato raindrops gather momentum as the storm approaches. The swell of the sea is clearly audible in the rising bass lines and dynamic arches that can be found in many instances, such as bars 37-38. In addition to these specific instances there are wonderfully atmospheric passages throughout the piece. For example, the presentation of the second subject (particularly in the recapitulation) evokes a magical lull in the weather; the wind drops and the sun peers through the clouds. The choice of keys in the development is also interesting in the use of 'darker' minor keys (f minor and b-flat minor) to herald the start of the rain in bar 149 – both capturing the brooding atmosphere of darker clouds and transporting the listener as far away as possible from the tonic key of b minor.

The Hebrides stands alongside Mendelssohn's Octet and the overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream as great works of the composer's youth – full of imagination, colour and energy, and perfectly formed.

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