The 450th birth anniversary of the great English bard William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is being celebrated all over the world this year. And at the peak of our own summer, it might be interesting to take a closer look at Shakespeare’s hugely popular comic play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and the inspiration it provided for music. In particular, the music of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1808-1847) will be our focus.
Shakespeare’s play was written in the 1590s, and contains three intersecting plots, connected by the wedding celebration of Theseus, Duke of Athens and the Amazon queen Hippolyta, set simultaneously in the woodland and in the realm of Fairyland, by the light of the moon. As its title suggests, and much like Alice in Wonderland, the whole work is a dream, an ethereal world that draws together the themes of Carnivalesque, Bacchanalia, Saturnalia, pixies, elves, fairies and magic, and the many facets and shades of love, attraction, and sexuality.
Unsurprisingly therefore, it has provided much fertile ground for the imagination of composers that were bewitched by it. Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (1692) is a masque or semi-opera with an adaptation of the play as its libretto. The music was lost after Purcell’s death but rediscovered and revived early in the 20th century.
Mendelssohn’s music is by far the most popular of all, for its sheer brilliance and genius. It is incredible that he wrote the famous concert Overture (E major, Opus 21) in 1826 when he was barely seventeen. At this young age, he had obviously read the play, albeit in its German translation, and already had the compositional skills to deftly, like a master painter working with colours, hues and shades, create an aural ‘picture’ using the sound palette (timbre) of orchestral instruments in just the ‘right’ combinations. A better example of programme imagery in music history will be hard to find.
Mendelssohn elaborates on this himself in a letter to his publisher regarding the concert overture: “I believe it will suffice to remember how the rulers of the elves, Oberon and Titania, constantly appear throughout the play with all their train, now here and now there; then comes Prince Theseus of Athens and joins a hunting party in the forest…then the two pairs of tender lovers, who lose and find themselves; finally the troop of clumsy, coarse tradesmen, who ply their ponderous amusements; then again the elves, who entice all – and on this the piece is constructed. When at the end all is happily resolved… the elves return and bless the house, and disappear as morning arrives. So ends the play, and also my overture.”
Sir George Grove (author of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians) called it “the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music”.
Four chords in the woodwinds and brass open and close the overture like book-ends, and keep returning periodically in between every time the music and the plot take a ‘twist.’ After the opening four chords, the key changes at once to E minor, signifying an entry into ‘another world’, and the elfin writing for the violins in rushing quavers played near the fingerboard with the upper part of the bow using little bow hair, punctuated by plucked strings in the violas magically evoke the flitting of fairy wings. The stage is set.
And it is set for the entry of Theseus and his entourage. Mendelssohn uses an ophicleide (replaced in modern orchestras for this piece by the tuba) to depict clumsy Nick Bottom, and the strings cleverly imitate the braying of the ass he is turned into, through the repeated sheer sudden drops in pitch. Two clarinets introduce the ‘love’ theme, and towards the end, the martial theme of Theseus is turned into a dreamy, floating wisp of a melody in the upper strings. Such wonderful writing is remarkable at any age, let alone in one’s teens.
The premier of the overture in 1827 was the first public concert of Mendelssohn’s music. He then seems to have set aside all thought of the Shakespeare play, only returning to it sixteen years later, in the last years of his short life. In 1842 he was commissioned to write incidental music to the play by King Frederick William IV of Prussia, following upon the successful staging of Sophocles’ Antigone with music by the composer. Mendelssohn incorporated the Overture as the first of the 14 movements of his incidental music.
The movements that are most popular are the Scherzo, Nocturne and the Wedding March. They are also the purely instrumental movements and are often performed with the overture as a concert suite. The Scherzo (meant to be played as an Intermezzo between Acts I & II), with its chattering woodwinds and cavorting strings again evokes a magical fairyland. It ends with a lone flute trailing off into the ether.
The Nocturne is performed between Acts III and IV, and uses a solo horn doubled by bassoons to depict the sleeping lovers.
The famous Wedding March is instantly recognizable to us all, and is performed as an intermezzo between Acts IV & V. It has the form of a rondo, with the tune we know and love so well returning again and again, interspersed by digressions.
The British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) also adapted the Shakespeare play into an opera. But Mendelssohn’s version gets played and listened to the most. The famed choreographer George Balanchine even created a ballet using Mendelssohn’s music.
(An edited version of this article was published on 18 May 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)