Fingal's Cave Overture, op. 26 (Hebrides)

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        Mendelssohn was a prodigy, born into a distinguished family of Jewish bankers and philosophers.  He and his sister Fanny--also a talented composer, conductor, and pianist—were raised in a warm, intellectual, highly supportive artistic family.  They matured early, and a stream of musical compositions flowed from them both.   Mendelssohn was clearly one of the most important German composers of his time, and infused the expressiveness of early romantic music with the clarity and intellectuality of Mozart and Haydn’s classicism.  This exquisite balance found expression in a wide variety of musical genres; Mendelssohn was as at home writing Protestant oratorios such as Elijah and St. Paul as he was chamber music and symphonies.   He composed a significant body of work in his relatively short life, including major works for orchestra that constitute an important part of today’s repertoire.   Those works include five symphonies, six concert overtures, and six concertos.

       Fingals Cave Overture, equally well known as the Hebrides Overture, is not an introduction to larger work, but simply a stand-alone concertpiece.   Like so many musical compositions of the romantic period, it does have an extra-musical inspiration—although it does not tell any stories.  Rather, it was simply inspired by the composer’s feelings in the presence of specific experiences, in the way that Mendelssohn’s visit south in 1830 inspired his "Italian" Symphony.

        In 1829 Mendelssohn traveled to Scotland, touring extensively, and visited Sir Walter Scott, with whom he made a trip to the western coast, looking out on the Hebrides.  There, on August 7, he conceived the main theme of the overture.  The next day he visited Fingal’s Cave, on the desolate island of Staffa, as well as the island of Iona.  It wasn’t until late in 1830, during a visit to Rome that Mendelssohn finished the Scottish overture, and dedicated it to his father as a birthday present.  Later, in May 1832 in London he heard its première, given by the Philharmonic Society. 

        The first theme of the work, heard right away, is a descending figure played in the low strings, and gives an admirable evocation of the loneliness of the image.  The other main theme, and an arresting one, announced by a kind of fanfare in the brass, is soon heard in the cellos and bassoons.  It suggests the inversion of the first and it remarkably calls to mind the action of wind and waves.   The overture is in sonata form, and the development section depicts a maelstrom of nature.   The recapitulation continues this stormy mood, which is broken with a quiet clarinet duet.   The storm resumes, and finally soft woodwind figures restate the opening themes, softly ending this remarkable evocation of the rugged Scottish coast.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan