The fusion of drama and music is as old as recorded history. In the ancient Greek drama, in the liturgical plays of the Middle Ages, in the plays of Shakespeare, and on to the era of films, music has often functioned as an indispensable adjunct to theatrical presentation. Setting the mood of a scene, commenting on the action, conveying psychological undercurrents, depicting character – as well as providing prescribed musical selections – all of these purposes and others are served by incidental music.
In the annals of incidental music, few if any matches are quite as perfect as Mendelssohn’s score and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Play and music became a true meeting of the spirits of author and composer. As a youngster, Mendelssohn had become familiar with Shakespeare, and particularly of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the translations to German of the Englishman’s works. The composer’s sister Fanny explained it this way. “From our youth on we were entwined in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Felix particularly made it his own. He identified with all the characters. He re-created them, so to speak, every one of those whom Shakespeare produced in the immensity of his genius.” The first tangible result of Mendelssohn’s identification with all the characters was the Overture, which came off of the young composer’s writing table when he was all of 17 years old. Years after its first performance in 1827, the composer spoke of his intentions, explaining: “It follows the play closely. I think it should be enough to point out that the fairy rulers, Oberon and Titania, appear throughout the play with all their people. At the end, after everything has been satisfactorily settled, and the principal players have joyfully left the stage, the elves follow them, bless the house and disappear with the dawn. So the play ends, and my Overture too.”
For Mendelssohn, however, the end of the Dream story did not come until 1943, when the King of Prussia asked the composer to write incidental music for a Berlin production of the play. Imagination stirred anew and enthusiasm bolstered by the production’s gifted director Ludwig Tieck, Mendelssohn plunged into the task. Apparently anointed with newly activated amounts of Shakespearian fairy dust, he turned out a score that quite remarkably takes up the enchantment of the Overture where it left off all those years before. It should be remarked that there are those who don’t think that estimate is a true one, and who believe the 1843 music does not reach the Overture’s standard. Yet, even while standing in awe of the youthful piece, how can one fail to be swept up into the gossamer web of the Scherzo, the limpid calm of the Nocturne, the grandeur of the main section of the Wedding March and the ardor of its middle section, or any of the countless magical moments that shine through the complete score.
Scherzo (played before Act II). Here is the quintessential Mendelssohn – a pre elfin spirit borne by orchestration that is the perfect counterpart to the character of the music. The main theme is given first by the woodwinds, and the secondary material by the strings. Both themes are soft and staccato, and they alternate throughout, with delicious passages in which a motif is tossed from winds to high strings to low strings, etc.
Intermezzo (between acts II and III). Another side of the Mendelssohn persona, the familiar Intermezzo is marked Allegro appassionato and is full of controlled ardor and elegant expressiveness.
Nocturne (between Acts II and III). The lovers are lost in the woods; a horn sings a haunting song. The atmosphere is tranquil but touched at times by unrest.
– Note by Orrin Howard