Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wednesday Overtures

Today's music choice is a selection of overtures by F. Mendelssohn, from the little-known 1988 Claus Peter Flor recording with the Bamberger Symphoniker included in the 40-CD set Mendelssohn: The Complete Masterpieces (which, as one might expect, is still missing several [arguable] masterpieces).

A number of pleasant discoveries in this.

The Wiki on Mendelssohn suggests Mendelssohn's overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is

"perhaps the earliest example of a 'concert overture', (i.e. a piece not written deliberately to accompany a staged performance, but to evoke a literary theme in performance on a concert platform), a genre which was to become a popular form in musical Romanticism."

The liner notes for the CD are more definitive with regards to this claim, noting in no uncertain terms that "the concert overture as part of a program was his [Mendelssohn's] invention" (p.15). So already we have a first.

Each of the eight included overtures on the disc has interesting history attached to it; I'm going to limit my comments to two of them.

Op. 27, "Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage" ("Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt") is a fun listen. A slow introduction gives way to an energetic build-up and concludes with a rousing finale, trumpets and all. This overture was inspired by two poems written by Goethe, with whom Mendelssohn was acquainted, and follows the joined poetic narrative quite closely. The liner notes on this:

"The overture, in its rather literal representation of a sea voyage, is somewhat unusual for Mendelssohn, who preferred to indicate things more in a poetic than in a concrete sense." (p. 17)

This may be an instance, therefore, where knowing the source material could potentially diminish the aesthetic experience by eliminating some uncertainty as to the tonal resolution of the piece (reading Goethe's second poem we can imagine just how proportionally triumphant and positive Mendelssohn's concluding bars are going to be).

Also noted in the liner notes, Mendelssohn wasn't the first to adapt these poems to musical form; none other than Beethoven preceded him, and in fact Mendelssohn's overture contains an acknowledgment of that in its musical key. Harper's published a nice piece on this early last year (which includes the text of both of Goethe's short poems). Here's the Beethoven cantata in one of several available on-line versions (this one is a fine Abbado):

Schubert, in turn, also adapted the first of these poems into a short song:

The second overture I wanted to mention is Op. 26, "The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave)." This has been recycled in a plethora of places, some listed in the preceding Wiki link. As indicated by its title, the overture was inspired by Fingal's Cave on the Hebridean island of Staffa, which Mendelssohn encountered during his first trip to Scotland in 1829. What a year this must have been for Mendelssohn -- he celebrated his twentieth birthday, directed a performance of Bach's Matthew Passion and met Paganini.

To me the opening 30 seconds or so of this magnificent overture sound positively Wagnerian, in the best possible sense of the term, and they even seem to anticipate Dvořák:

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