Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, op. 21

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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.  In point of fact, Felix and his sister were incredibly precocious.   He was probably one of the best-educated major composers of all time. Voracious readers, interested in science and philosophy, and daily conversationalists with the leading minds of Germany, the siblings even started their own literary magazine in their early teens.  Obviously, they matured quickly, and a stream of musical compositions soon flowed from them both.   Mendelssohn was clearly one of the most important German composers of the 19th century, 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 composing chamber music and symphonies.   He created a significant body of work in his relatively short life, including major works for orchestra that constitute an important part of today’s repertoire.   They include five symphonies, six concert overtures, and six concertos.

            His musical style reflects, to a large degree, his upbringing and his personality—it speaks of discipline, balance, and an overall cheerful, largely untroubled mien.   While his compositions reflect solicitude for clear, balanced musical structures, and an obvious avoidance of excess of romantic emotion and empty virtuosity, there is nevertheless a sentimental and emotive quality to them.  His personal musical voice reached maturity by the remarkable age of seventeen, a feat some say that even Mozart did not attain.

            Fanny and Felix, like so many on the continent during the nineteenth century, adored Shakespeare, and the concert overture inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream for two pianos (to be played by brother and sister) was written when Mendelssohn was seventeen.  He soon orchestrated it, and his facility at that task is no less an achievement than the overture’s composition, itself.    Mendelssohn captured Shakespeare’s world of fairies, Oberon and Tatiana, gossamer atmospheres, magic, elves, and donkeys with a deft facility that is simply unmatched—even by Berlioz. 

            The magic begins immediately with the immortal four chords of the opening—a remarkably simple little affair, but memorable for their effect, and the source for many of the tunes in the work.   As the instrumentation builds from chord to chord, the curtain rises in our mind’s eye and we are transported to Shakespeare’s enchanted world.   A spritely dance for fairies begins straightaway and we’re off.   While the musical structure is conventional, it’s cloaked in the marvelous tunes that evoke the players’ personalities, even closing the first section with a humorous “hee-haw” from Bottom, the donkey.  After working through the themes the magic chords that open the work return and after a reprise the work ends with the same soft chords of the beginning—chords that draw our reverie to a sleepy close, and in Franz Liszt characterization, we slowly open our eyes.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan