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Music for William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was written by Felix Mendelssohn at different times in his life. In 1826, near the start of his career, he wrote a concert overture (Op. 21). In 1842, only a few years before his death, he wrote incidental music (Op. 61) for a production of the play, into which he incorporated the existing Overture. The incidental music includes the world-famous Wedding March. The German title reads Ein Sommernachtstraum.

Overture

The Overture, Op. 21, was the product of a boy aged 17 years 6 months (it was finished on 6 August 1826) and is regarded as one of the most astonishingly assured and polished pieces of orchestral music ever written by such a young composer. It was written as a concert overture, not associated with any performance of the play. The Overture was written after Mendelssohn had read a German translation of the play in 1826. The translation was by August Wilhelm Schlegel, with help from Ludwig Tieck. There was a family connection as well: Schlegel's brother Friedrich married Felix Mendelssohn's aunt Dorothea.

While a romantic piece in atmosphere, the Overture incorporates many classical elements, being cast in sonata form and shaped by regular phrasings and harmonic transitions. The piece is also noted for its striking instrumental effects, such as the emulation of scampering 'fairy feet' at the beginning and the braying of Bottom as an ass (effects which were influenced by the aesthetic ideas and suggestions of Mendelssohn's friend at the time, Adolf Bernhard Marx).

The Overture opens with four of the most evocative chords in music. Heinrich Eduard Jacob, in his biography of the composer, said that Mendelssohn had scribbled the chords after hearing an evening breeze rustle the leaves in the garden of the family's home.

Following the first theme representing the dancing fairies, a transition (the royal music of the court of Athens) leads to a second theme, that of the lovers. A final group of themes, suggesting the craftsmen and hunting calls, closes the exposition. The fairies dominate most of the development section and ultimately have the final word in the coda, just as in Shakespeare's play.

The Overture was premiered in Stettinmarker (now Szczecinmarker in Polandmarker) on 20 February 1827, at a concert conducted by Carl Loewe. Mendelssohn had turned 18 just over two weeks earlier. He had to travel 80 miles through a raging snowstorm to get to the concert, which was his first public appearance. Loewe and Mendelssohn also appeared as soloists in Mendelssohn's Concerto in A-flat major for 2 pianos and orchestra, and Mendelssohn alone was the soloist for Carl Maria von Weber's Konzertstück in F minor. After the intermission, he joined the first violins for a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

The first British performance of the Overture was conducted by Mendelssohn himself, on 24 June 1829, at the Argyll Rooms in Londonmarker, at a concert in benefit of the victims of the floods in Silesia, and played by an orchestra that had been assembled by Mendelssohn's friend Sir George Smart.

Incidental music

Mendelssohn wrote the incidental music, Op. 61, for A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1842, 16 years after he wrote the Overture. It was written to a commission from King Frederick William IV of Prussia. Mendelssohn was by now the music director of the King's Academy of the Arts and of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. A successful presentation of Sophocles' Antigone on 28 October 1841 at the New Palace in Potsdammarker, with music by Mendelssohn (Op. 55) led to the King asking him for more such music, to plays he especially enjoyed. A Midsummer Night's Dream was produced on 14 October 1843, also at Potsdam. The producer was Ludwig Tieck. This was followed by incidental music for Sophocles' Oedipus (Potsdam, 1 November 1845; published posthumously as Op. 93) and Jean Racine's Athalie (Berlin, 1 December 1845; Op. 74).

The A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, Op. 21, originally written as an independent piece 16 years earlier, was incorporated into the Op. 61 incidental music as its overture, and the first of its 14 numbers. There are also vocal sections and other purely instrumental movements, including the Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March. The vocal numbers include the song "Ye spotted snakes" and the melodramas "Over hill, over dale", "The Spells", "What hempen homespuns", and "The Removal of the Spells". The melodramas served to enhance Shakespeare's text.

Act I was played without music. The Scherzo, with its sprightly scoring, dominated by chattering winds and dancing strings, acts as an intermezzo between Acts I and II. The Scherzo leads directly into the first melodrama, a passage of text spoken over music. Oberon's arrival is accompanied by a fairy march, scored with triangle and cymbals.

The vocal piece "Ye spotted snakes" opens Act II's second scene. The second Intermezzo comes at the end of the second act. Act III includes a quaint march for the entrance of the Mechanicals. We soon hear music quoted from the Overture to accompany the action. The Nocturne includes a solo horn doubled by bassoons, and accompanies the sleeping lovers between Acts III and IV. There is only one melodrama in Act IV. This closes with a reprise of the Nocturne to accompany the mortal lovers' sleep.

The intermezzo between Acts IV and V is the famous Wedding March, probably the most popular single piece of music composed by Mendelssohn, and one of the most ubiquitous pieces of music ever written.

Act V contains more music than any other, to accompany the wedding feast. There is a brief fanfare for trumpets and timpani, a parody of a funeral march, and a Bergomask dance. The dance uses Bottom's braying from the Overture as its main thematic material.

The play has three brief epilogues. The first is introduced with a reprise of the theme of the Wedding March and the fairy music of the Overture. After Puck's speech, the final musical number is heard - "Through this house give glimmering light", scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano and chorus. Puck's famous valedictory speech "If we shadows have offended" is accompanied, as day breaks, by the four chords first heard at the very beginning of the Overture, bringing the work full circle and to a fitting close.

The purely instrumental movements (Overture, Scherzo, Intermezzo, Nocturne and Wedding March) are often played as independent pieces at concert performance or on recording. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded the complete incidental music for RCA Victor; Ormandy broke with tradition by using the German translation of Shakespeare's text. In January 1995, Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra recorded the full score for Deutsche Grammophon; they were joined by soloists Frederica Von Stade and Kathleen Battle as well as the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

References

  1. Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., 1954
  2. Portland Chamber Orchestra
  3. Tuba Journal
  4. Wallace Brockeay, Men of Music - Their Lives, Times and Achievements
  5. Answers.com
  6. http://www.amazon.com/Mendelssohn-Midsummer-complete-Symphony-Orchestra/dp/B000001GM6



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