Composed: 1826, 1842
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, ophicleide (tuba), timpani, cymbals, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 17, 1922, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Mendelssohn was only seventeen when he and his sister Fanny saw a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream in Berlin. He immediately wrote a piece for piano duet for them to play together, depicting the characters and extraordinary events in the play. He had no thought of it being an overture to anything such as an opera or a performance of the play, but having orchestrated it soon after he called it an Overture, thus making an entirely novel contribution to the 19th century’s wealth of program music.
Fifteen years later he was invited by the King of Prussia to compose incidental music for the play and to append it to the Overture for a production in his palace at Potsdam, near Berlin. Some of the music was played during the action of the play, but the main pieces, apart from the Overture, were four entr’actes. In these selections we hear the Scherzo (to follow Act I) and the Wedding March (to precede Act V).
In the Overture Mendelssohn no doubt relished the challenge of recreating in music what he had seen on the stage. He felt no inhibition about showing us Shakespeare’s characters as vividly as possible while still holding firm to the structural principles of classical sonata form. The four magical chords on the winds is the curtain-up, suggesting the mysterious forest. The violins then show us, with extreme delicacy, the fairies that inhabit it. Then a grand orchestral tutti for Theseus and his court. The second subject is the lovers’ theme on the strings, sighing and amorous. And finally we see the “rude mechanicals,” stamping their feet and with one of their number (Bottom) braying like the donkey he will later resemble.
The central part of the movement takes us to the fairies’ nocturnal frolics in the forest, with some alarming calls on the horns. Eventually four descending pizzicato scales show the lovers settled in sleep, and a passage vividly suggests speech before the opening chords again bring the fairies to life. Some uncouth notes (bassoon, then horn, then tuba) show us Bottom snoring in Titania’s arms, and Theseus’ music is held back to the end since he is the last mortal to speak. But the fairies have the last word, and Theseus is shown sinking in a drowsy “goodnight!”.
The Scherzo anticipates the fairies’ scene in the forest at the start of Act II. Having already proved himself to be a master of gossamer fairy music in the Octet, the Violin Concerto, and in many other pieces, Mendelssohn produced yet another sample of orchestral wizardry for this scene, rarely rising above piano and showing off the fine skills of both strings and winds, especially the flute, whose long fairy dance at the end trips lightly off the scene and into silence.
The Wedding March celebrates the coming nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta. It also embraces the happy resolution of all the misunderstandings and quarrels that have beset the two pairs of lovers, Lysander and Hermia, and Demetrius and Helena. For as long as anyone can remember it has blessed the weddings of countless couples the world over, many of whom, heading for the daylight and the photographer, will have left the church long before the music reaches its broad and melodious subsidiary themes. Here’s a chance finally to hear the music in all its glorious splendor.
Hugh Macdonald is general editor of The New Berlioz Edition and a professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis.