Whatever their musical convictions, nineteenth-century composers shared a literary and artistic culture that had turned away from the Classical subjects of the eighteenth century and toward folklore. Before Mozart’s time, for example, nearly all operas were based on Greek and Roman history and myths, or stories of the Crusaders and the knights of Charlemagne who had fought for Christendom against the Infidels. By the mid-nineteenth century the gods and the knights were supplanted by Faust, characters from contemporary literature, and the creatures of Northern European fairy tales.
Melusina was a water sprite who bore a curse that turned her into a serpent from the waist down every Saturday. She married a mortal knight after making him promise to stay away from her on Saturdays. The knight, of course, eventually got curious (in some versions of the story, it was because their children were deformed, and he suspected that another man was visiting Melusina on Saturdays and siring them) and broke his promise. Relationships being based more on trust in those days than they are now, this breach of promise caused irreconcilable differences. The story of Melusina dated from the Middle Ages, but it had staying power: the aristocracy of the Lusignan region of France claimed descent from Melusina’s offspring, and to this day cookies in the shape of a pretty woman with a serpent’s tale are common in Lusignan.
Mendelssohn wrote seven freestanding overtures, typically representing some extramusical idea (literary works such as Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, or the experience of the ocean near the Hebrides). Though they tend to be sonata-form works and not program music in any sense, they are in a sense the forerunners of the symphonic poems that Liszt pioneered a decade or two later. Mendelssohn composed his Fairy Tale of the Fair Melusina in 1834, fulfilling part of a commission for the London Philharmonic Society, but its story began years earlier, when an aspiring young Viennese writer named Franz Grillparzer wrote an opera libretto about Melusina. Grillparzer offered it to Beethoven, who wasn’t interested. It was left to a far lesser light, Constantin Kreutzer (not to be confused with Rudolphe Kreutzer, the Parisian violinist to received the dedication of Beethoven’s great violin sonata but never played it) to compose the opera years later. It was not a big success, but Mendelssohn attended a performance, and was so taken with the failure of Kreutzer’s music to do justice to the subject that he wrote his own overture. Grillparzer went on to become the most famous Austrian writer of the nineteenth century. Kreutzer is forgotten by history, except when the story of Mendelssohn’s Melusina is told.
Melusina is not among Mendelssohn’s better-known works, but the composer was very fond of it. He made a point of saying that his overture did not represent a telling of the story, but rather a reflection of its themes and moods. It is easy to hear to hear Melusina and her watery home in the first theme and the conflicts in the curse and her terrestrial marriage in the second. Indeed, the burbling motif that begins the overture is so quintessentially aquatic that it became something of cliché. Wagner souped it up and used it represent the Rhine river, home to his own water maidens, in the Ring cycle. Wagner rarely missed a chance to say something disparaging or bigoted about Mendelssohn, but conceded, in typically condescending fashion, that Mendelssohn was a “first-class landscape painter.” Wagner was more right than he knew. Mendelssohn’s Melusina is a complex emotional landscape of psyches in conflict and pain intruding on idyllic love.
- Note by Howard Posner