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Composed: 1826 (Overture), 1843 (Incidental Music)
Length: 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 30, 1919 (Wedding March); January 16, 1920 (Scherzo); March 7, 1920 (Nocturne); February 17, 1922 (Overture), all with Walter Henry Rothwell conducting; January 21, 1934 (Intermezzo), Otto Klemperer conducting
The Midsummer Night's Dream Overture is a startling work, and not because Mendelssohn was only 17 when he wrote it. His Opus 20 Octet of the previous year established that Mendelssohn was a master capable of anything. But in the Overture, Mendelssohn created a musical genre, and a musical language and expression, unlike any that had come before.
It was the first "concert overture," a work intended not to introduce a dramatic presentation, but to represent, complete in itself, a literary work, or story, or place. Music as literature became such a quintessentially Romantic concept, and the concert overture (such as Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet), and its offshoot, the tone poem, became so common in the 19th century that it is easy to forget that this one overture started it all.
Typical for Mendelssohn, the overture's sounds and concept may be forward-looking, but in form it is very much a traditional sonata. He originally wrote it as a piano duet in 1826, but it is hard to believe that he didn't have much of the orchestration in mind from the beginning. The orchestral version, completed soon after the duet and premiered in 1827, did much to establish his reputation.
In 1833, Mendelssohn wrote to his publishers, who had apparently asked him if there was a specific program to the overture.
"I believe it will suffice to remember how the rulers of the elves, Oberon and Titania, constantly appear throughout the play with all their train, now here and now there; then comes Prince Theseus of Athens and joins a hunting party in the forest…then the two pairs of tender lovers, who lose and find themselves; finally the troop of clumsy, coarse tradesmen, who ply their ponderous amusements; then again the elves, who entice all - and on this the piece is constructed. When at the end all is happily resolved… the elves return and bless the house, and disappear as morning arrives. So ends the play, and also my overture."
Mendelssohn scored the overture for the same orchestra that had been standard since Mozart's day, with one startling exception. To the strings, timpani, and pairs of woodwinds, horns, and trumpets, he added an ophicleide, a bass brass instrument that works like a woodwind, changing pitch by covering and uncovering holes with keys. Its sound is coarser than that of the tuba, which had not been invented in 1826. The ophicleide itself had been invented only in 1817, but quickly found a place in bands. Spontini and Berlioz had already used it in serious music, and it would have an illustrious career in the orchestra for a few decades before the even newer tuba supplanted it. But using it in a big orchestra with trombones was a far cry from writing for it in a small orchestra used as sparingly as Mendelssohn used his. The big, uncouth instrument sticks out of the shimmering orchestral texture like Bottom the weaver, with his jackass head, sticks out of the gossamer bower of the fairy queen Titania, which was Mendelssohn's point in using it. It even gets to bray like an ass in the recapitulation. There are no ophicleides in the modern orchestra, of course: the tuba, more elephantine and less asinine, takes it place.
The overture is full of memorable touches. After opening chords define the key of E major, violins in four parts abruptly change to E minor, letting us know that we're entering a different world, and then depict the fairy world in quick notes. Little woodwind fanfare figures that seem inconsequential in the exposition become very mysterious, like spirits popping up from behind mushrooms and then disappearing, in the development. The strings offer their own hee-haws. Loud horn calls evoke both the threatening darkness of the forest and Theseus' hunting party.
Mendelssohn was making new sounds here. Many composers had conjured the fairy world before, but no one had been able to do it so convincingly and completely. Few were so willing to lay the orchestra so bare and transparent; the treble-only scampering of the fairies is particularly striking on a program with Beethoven, whose granite-solid textures speak of daylight and very human strength.
In 1843, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia asked Mendelssohn to write music for the entire Shakespeare play. Mendelssohn supplied 13 new numbers; not only full-length pieces for scene changes and settings of the song texts in the play, but a few snippets to underlay stage action. The Scherzo, Intermezzo, Nocturne, and Wedding March on this program all come between acts, showing what a glorious thing a scene change can be.
They are presented in their dramatic order, but a reminder of the plot may still be helpful in listening to them, since, unlike the Overture, they each have a specific dramatic purpose. Hermia and Lysander elope into the woods outside Athens so Hermia won't have to marry Demetrius, her father's choice for her. Demetrius follows, as does Helena, who loves Demetrius, who used to love Helena. A band of tradesmen, including Bottom the weaver, go into the forest to rehearse a play they hope to perform at the imminent wedding of Theseus, duke of Athens. In the forest, Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, are bickering. Oberon casts a spell on Titania to make her fall in love with the first thing she sees, which turns out to be Bottom, given the head of an ass by Puck, Oberon's trickster. Oberon and Puck also cast love-spells, inaccurately, on Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius, who spend the night falling in and out of love before everyone winds up loving the right person by morning, and the two couples get married in the same ceremony with Theseus and Hippolyta.
The Scherzo is the first musical interlude in the play. It comes after Act I, which is set entirely in the human world of Athens and daylight, and sets the stage for the forest, night, and fairy world of Act II. The chiaroscuro sound of flutes, low clarinets, and middle bassoons that opens it is another Mendelssohn innovation; it may bring Tchaikovsky to mind.
The Intermezzo begins at the end of Act II, when Hermia, suddenly abandoned by the bewitched Lysander, anxiously sets off into the woods alone to find "either death" or him. Woodwinds and first violins toss an unsettling little motif back and forth over nervous tremolos from the other strings, portraying the strangeness of the woods at night and reflecting Hermia's fear without taking it too seriously in what is, after all, a comedy. Much of the music would have sounded tonally obscure, and thus spooky, to an 1843 audience. After a few minutes, the music forgets Hermia and turns to Bottom and the other tradesmen, whose rehearsal will begin Act III. They are introduced with a simple peasant-like march, rustic drones and raucous horns.
The Nocturne comes at the end of Act III, when Puck finally has each of the four lovers sleeping where he or she will wake up and fall in love with the right person. Mendelssohn gives the melody to the first horn, embraced by the two bassoons, while a clarinet and the second horn drone quietly to evoke the still of night. Later the flutes suggest the proverbial wings of night. In the play, the subtle but majestic beauty of the music is a sublime description of the scene of sleeping lovers, but also an incongruous setup for a visual gag: when it ends the curtain opens on the ridiculous sight of Titania, the fairy queen, in her bower with the ass-headed Bottom.
The Wedding March comes at the close of Act IV and leads into the post-wedding party of Act V. The trombones make their first appearance in the Midsummer Night's Dream music (and only appearance in today's concert), re-establishing the world of humans and daylight, and emphasizing that this a wedding not only of the enchanted lovers, but of the royal Theseus and Hippolyta.
-- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra, the Coleman Chamber Concerts, and the Salzburg Festival.