Skip to page content

Composed: 1830-1832
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 spring of 1829, the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn went to England to begin what would become an on-again, off-again three-year European tour. Such tours were common for children of the well-to-do (his father had amassed a considerable fortune in the banking business), but Mendelssohn was no ordinary rich kid. He had already composed such landmark works as the Opus 20 Octet and the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, and his name was known in musical circles in all of northern Europe. He wasted no time getting before the London public, scoring a major success conducting the London Philharmonic in his First Symphony in May. At the end of July, with the concert season over, he left with his friend Karl Klingemann for Edinburgh, where he conceived the Scottish Symphony that he would finish a dozen years later. A week later, on the island of Mull in the Inner Hebrides west of the Scottish mainland, he wrote in a letter home to Berlin:

“In order to make you realize how extraordinarily the Hebrides have affected me, the following came into my head there.”

The “following” was extraordinary indeed: 21 bars in piano score, with orchestration indicated, of what we now know as the opening of The Hebrides. The next day, he and Klingemann took a steamer to the tiny island of Staffa to see one of Europe’s great tourist attractions, Fingal’s Cave, a sort of Hibernian Carlsbad Caverns. According to Klingmann, the trip made Mendelssohn seasick, and judging from the absence of any mention of it in Mendelssohn’s otherwise detailed travel notebook, the cave made far less of an impression on him than other scenery.

As spontaneous a stroke of genius as that opening theme is, the Overture did not come easily. He apparently “finished” at least two versions, and late as 1832 he was still wrestling with it, writing to his sister that it did not savor enough of “oil and seagulls and dead fish.”

The Overture turned out to be one of his greatest successes, even if there has never been agreement about what to call it. A publisher seems to have stuck the name “Fingal’s Cave” on it, no doubt because Fingal’s Cave was far better known than the Hebrides islands as such (much as “Grand Canyon Suite” has more sales appeal than “Northwest Arizona Suite”), but couldn’t manage to get it straight: in the 1834 publication the score is labeled “Fingal’s Cave” and the parts titled “The Hebrides.”

The confusion is unimportant except as a hint that we should not look for overly specific programmatic content in the overture. Clearly, it evokes the sea; indeed, never has a composer set a scene more aptly than Mendelssohn does in the opening few seconds, with the undulating theme in the low strings set against the still sea-air held notes of the violins and woodwinds. Mendelssohn spins more themes out of that opening motif in a seamless web, then fashions them into a sonata structure along the lines of a symphony’s first movement. It is full of deft touches and evocative nuances; perhaps most memorable is the way the second subject, which first appears in the cellos and bassoons (when the music first moves from the home key of B minor to D major) as yet another evocation of ocean waves, reappears just before the end in the clarinets, in a passage of tranquil, wistful reminiscence before the work ends in a stormy flurry and a distant echo.

Howard Posner plays lute and baroque guitar and practices appellate law in Los Angeles, though he rarely does those things at the same time. He writes a column in California Lawyer magazine in which he explains how lawyers can write like human beings.