Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 27, 1920, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
In 1829, several months after leading the epochal revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in Leipzig, Mendelssohn embarked on a period of travel throughout Europe with a visit (the first of many) to Britain. Karl Klingemann, a family friend from Berlin then serving as a diplomat in London, played the role of guide to the 20-year-old composer in the capital. Later that summer, he and Mendelssohn headed north for a walking tour of Scotland.
Mendelssohn’s love of literature and the visual arts helped shape the Scottish journey and in fact is central to the genesis of this piece. The aura of the ancient Celtic bard Ossian provided part of the attraction of the Hebrides Islands, off Scotland’s west coast, where heroes of old were said to have performed their exploits. Ossian was still regarded at the time as the Celtic Homer, although his 18th-century “translator,” James MacPherson, had long been suspected of inventing Ossian’s material.
The artist-composer was so taken with the misty view of the islands in the distance that he immediately tried to capture it: in a pencil sketch and in a revealingly full working-out of the opening bars of what would become the Hebrides Overture, subtitled “Fingal’s Cave.” He and Klingemann then sailed out to the uninhabited island of Staffa, where Fingal’s Cave is located. The sight of Staffa’s cave-riddled cliffs, with their natural architecture of immense black basalt columns, embedded itself in the aesthetic memory of the visit.
The unspoiled beauty of Fingal’s Cave, together with its resonance of an epic past – Fingal being Ossian’s name for a Celtic warrior who had tried to expel the Norse from the Hebrides – was pattern perfect for the sensibilities of early Romanticism. A decade before, Keats wrote of Fingal’s Cave, “for solemnity and grandeur it far surpasses the finest cathedral.” Klingemann in fact compared the sound of the waves roaring into the cave to that of a vast organ.
The basic material of The Hebrides – the measures sketched during the 1829 trip – is a theme pronounced by violas, cellos, and bassoons against a haze of sustained chords. The theme’s downward spiral on the minor triad has a strong melodic and rhythmic profile that lends itself to the obsessive repetitions and transformations to follow. Indeed, the piece’s main contrasting theme, a broadly yearning ascent (announced by cellos and bassoons), is a prolonged inversion of the first motif: the gravitational pull and the lyrical elevation are different aspects of the same thing. And in this Mendelssohn creates a perfect musical metaphor for an idea that Fingal’s Cave inspired: constant ebb and flow against an underlying persistence.
The darker hues and gentle associations of Mendelssohn’s scoring have led some to detect an incipient impressionism here. However, the effectiveness of the music goes far beyond local moments of scene painting — the churning counterpoint that suggests violent waves or the lingering, sunset-like duet of clarinet thirds right before the coda — and draws on Mendelssohn’s inherent classicism. The Overture offers a marvel of motivic development within a beautifully proportioned sonata form, each of its chief sections punctuated by a climax with hints of fanfares. Yet for the final measures, Mendelssohn reserves a brilliantly subtle gesture: the two themes combine, in their opposite directions, and fade into a timeless silence.