Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847) | Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream
German composer Felix Mendelssohn was one of the most naturally gifted musicians of the 19th century, his talents having been developed to a considerable degree while he was still a boy. Musical talent often shows at an early age, but even among musical prodigies, some still clearly stand out above the rest. While Mozart certainly comes to mind, Mendelssohn is definitely in the same league and he enjoyed a number of distinct advantages that Mozart did not share: he grew up in a wealthy, culturally sophisticated home where artistic achievement of all kinds was valued, and he also had access to the finest teachers. Even with such a ‘head start’, the achievements of his youth and teenage years are truly remarkable and they include the string symphonies, a chamber opera, the wonderful Octet in E-flat major (that he completed in 1825 at the mere age of 16) and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826).
Several of Felix’s early works were first performed at Mendelssohn family concerts, to which friends were often invited on Sundays. Here the young composer would, depending upon the program, play the viola, conduct the orchestra, and sometimes he would even provide the score. Despite being surrounded by Romantic influences, Mendelssohn’s inspiration was primarily Classical and his musical ideals were embodied in the works of Bach, Handel and Mozart rather than those of his contemporaries.
Felix shared a deep bond with his sister Fanny, who was herself very musically gifted and a composer in her own right. They shared their thoughts and feelings their entire lives. When Fanny died in 1847, her brother’s grief was so overwhelming that it may well have contributed to his own premature death.
Mendelssohn’s most beloved work is without a doubt his overture (and incidental music) to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He had already written the overture by the age of seventeen, strongly influenced by performances of the Bard’s works given during his youth (in German translation) in the Mendelssohn home. Seventeen years later, in 1843, he received a commission from Friedrich Wilhelm IV to compose incidental music to the play and he masterfully constructed a suite of thirteen numbers, using themes from his brilliant overture as leitmotivs for the various dramatic levels, in much the same fashion as Wagner used leitmotivs in his music dramas. For example, the four hushed chords which open the overture are used to herald the entry of Oberon and Titania in the finale of the incidental music. The themes in smaller rhythmic units that follow (pianissimo, in the upper strings) become the song of the spirits, elves and fairies. What about that interval of the falling 9th that you hear midway through the overture? It can only be Bottom’s ‘hee-haw’, of course.
By connecting the themes in the Overture to their appearance many years later in the incidental music makes not only for a fascinating and illuminating exercise, it also serves to illustrate Mendelssohn’s dramatic gifts and his true brilliance as a composer. That in his youth he was able to so fully and completely encapsulate the magical dream world of Shakespeare’s midsummer night into a single, scintillating overture, and so much later could make that same microcosm expand so perfectly as to fit, in every sense, the fullness of the dramatic work, is an astonishing feat.