Mendelssohn: ``Hebrides'' Overture

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, 1809-1847. Overture, ``The Hebrides, or Fingal's Cave'', Op. 26. Completed December 16, 1830, revised June 20, 1832, first performance May 14, 1832, in London. Scored for 2 each flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, tympani, and strings.

In the Nineteenth Century it was common for wealthy young men to undertake a ``Grand Tour'' of Europe to gain perspective and culture. Mendelssohn's tour lasted four years, taking him through every major country and city of the time. His first stop was London, his second Scotland, where he visited the Hebrides and the renowned Fingal's Cave. Tremendously impressed by the beauty and immensity of the place, he quickly jotted down what would become the opening notes of the overture, including them in a letter home written that same evening.

More than a year would pass before the composer finally completed the overture, tentatively titled ``Die einsame Insel,'' or ``The Lonely Island,'' and yet another before it could be performed. (It is fortunate for history that he had included the introduction in his letter, or we might have mistaken this for one of those situations where a composer writes ``pure'' music and a publisher later applies a catchy title, as happened with Beethoven's ``Moonlight'' Sonata, among many other works; indeed, the final title is far more apt than the interim one.)

The most striking aspect of this overture is its successful tone-painting. We can hear the breaking of the waves, almost see the basalt columns and strange colors, and above all experience the overwhelming vastness of the cavern. Many composers, before and since, have used music to depict the physical world, but in Fingal's Cave, Mendelssohn set an example that has never been equaled.

© 1996, Geoff Kuenning

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