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About this Piece

Composed: 1824, 1826
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 E-flat clarinets, 2 basset horns, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, and percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle)
First LA Phil performance: November 16, 1995, Kent Nagano conducting

Felix Mendelssohn was 15 when he composed the Harmoniemusik and the First Symphony in 1824. They are astonishing works for someone the age of a high school sophomore, but Mendelssohn was the most prodigious of prodigies, and both works show an undisputable mastery, if not undisputable genius. The works of undisputable genius were just over the horizon: he would compose the magnificent Octet at 16, and the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture at 17.  Had he died at 18, we would all know his name.

To be sure, his name was already known in the summer of 1824, when he traveled with his father north from their Berlin home to the spa town of Bad Doberan on the Baltic Sea, in the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.  They were able to make the acquaintance of the Grand Duke himself because they were prominent people. Felix was acquiring a reputation in musical circles, and his father was a very wealthy and important banker.  The grand duke’s court orchestra was called a harmonie, a German word that meant an ensemble of wind instruments. It referred sometimes to a wind octet (pairs of clarinets, horns, bassoons, and oboes) that played serenades at aristocratic gatherings, sometimes to the wind section of an orchestra (Haydn’s last mass is nicknamed Harmoniemesse for its prominent wind parts), and sometimes to military bands. (The term occasionally showed up in English to mean wind music: in “Hail, Bright Cecilia,” set by Purcell in 1692, the poet Nicholas Brady wrote of “the fife and all the harmony of war.”)

For the grand duke’s band, Mendelssohn composed what he called a Nocturno, scored, as far as anyone knows, for a wind octet with three added instruments: flute, trumpet, and English bass horn, an instrument that was never common and is now so obscure that even most early music aficionados have never heard of it. Like the ophicleide, which Mendelssohn used so remarkably in the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, it was a keyed brass bass instrument, played with a brass mouthpiece but equipped with keys like a woodwind. While the ophicleide looks like a tuba or baritone horn trying to be a saxophone, or vice versa, the English bass horn looked more like a bassoon. The newfangled tuba supplanted both instruments later in the 19th century.

The precise form of the original Nocturno is apparently lost forever because Mendelssohn lost the score and rewrote the work in 1826. When he published it 1838, he added two small clarinets in F (sounding a tone higher than the modern small E-flat clarinet), basset horns (alto clarinets sounding an octave lower than the small clarinets), two more horns, contrabassoon, three trombones, and percussion, for a total of 24 parts.  So the Overture exists in two versions by Mendelssohn, and rather a lot of band arrangements by other hands.

The Overture is cast as a sonata allegro with a slow introduction, but although the form is similar to many symphony first movements, the flavor is much more that of a serenade. The allegro section is designed more to allow the players to show off than to express anything more profound than high spirits.

— Howard Posner