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Posts Tagged ‘Mendelssohn’

William Blake: Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786)
William Blake: Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786)

NOTE: This week’s In Performance (Sunday 6 April 2014) will extend past the usual end time of 10pm.

HISTORY

Felix Mendelssohn might almost have been born to compose the music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Certainly his love for Shakespeare was in full bloom long before his teenage years were past.

Felix, it must be said, was no starving artist. He was the son of a wealthy banker. The family lived outside Berlin on a sumptuous estate of 10 acres. Their palatial home even included a theatre. When the weather was fair, they held concerts in their vast gardens – not outdoors, but in yet another concert hall which seated hundreds.

To get his last three symphonies performed, Mozart had to rent a casino; all the young Mendelssohn had to do to hear his music played was walk a few yards. He and his immensely talented sister Fanny were regular features on the concert stages, too.

But it was the idyllic garden itself that really captivated young Felix. He spent hours there, reading, imagining, composing. One evening in the summer of 1826, he told his English friend William Bennett, he discovered Shakespeare in that garden.

There his music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream had its first stirrings. Not even a month after falling under Puck’s spell, Mendelssohn had already composed an overture. He had also effectively invented the concert overture – a musical form that doesn’t introduce a specific opera or other theatre piece, but rather stands for a literary work. Mendelssohn’s work arguably points the way to Liszt’s symphonic poems and Strauss’s tone poems.

He was 17 years old.

By 1842 Mendelssohn’s career was fully established. He was music director of the famed Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He was also Kapellmeister to Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. Friedrich’s Royal Theatre was planning a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: would Mendelssohn compose the music?

In all, Mendelssohn created 12 new pieces for the play, introducing them with the atmospheric overture he’d crafted as a Shakespeare-smitten teenager. What’s remarkable about the music he composed at the age of 33 is how seamlessly it fits with what he’d written 16 years earlier.

The production’s premiere in November was a complete success. The music has never faltered since. Today the suite from Mendelssohn’s music is a beloved part of the standard orchestral repertoire, but it’s a rare treat to hear all the music Mendelssohn composed in the setting that he intended – woven into a theatrical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (In fact today you should consider yourself fortunate to hear a live orchestra accompanying any stage production.)

Following on to last season’s collaboration with Groundworks Dance Theatre in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the Akron Symphony and music director Christopher Wilkins undertook a project at least as complex.

In early March (2014), A Midsummer Night’s Dream brought together on the E J Thomas Hall stage noted regional actors, Ballet Excel Ohio (formerly Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet), and the Summit Choral Society Children’s Chorus. To keep the length of the performance in line with the realities of modern classical concert practice, the play was presented in an abridged version from Murray Ross’s Theatreworks of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

SYNOPSIS

Duke Theseus and Hippolyta are preparing for their wedding. Their courtship has been – shall we say – unconventional: Hippolyta is the queen of the Amazons, whom Theseus has just defeated in battle. He is captivated by her charms. She is a captive.

Egeus arrives with his daughter Hermia. It seems that she too is involved in a somewhat complex courtship: both Lysander and Demetrius seek her hand.

The truth is that Hermia loves Lysander. However, Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius. He is here to get his wishes enforced by the duke’s iron hand. Meanwhile, Helena is in love with Demetrius. (Following this so far?)

Egeus is fabulously successful; the duke grants his wish. Hermia has a month: she must do as papa says or face death! – or at least the ascetic life of the convent.

Hermia and Lysander decide to run away. They will meet in the forest. But Hermia makes a grievous error: she tells Helena of their plans.

Remember, Helena loves Demetrius – but Demetrius doesn’t love Helena. Here is some ammunition for Helena: maybe if she spills Hermia’s secret to Demetrius, she’ll win some favor from him. So she does. Demetrius takes off in hot pursuit of the desperate couple, Helena at his heels.

In the forest, fairy king Oberon and fairy queen Titania are scrapping over which of them should have a changeling boy that Titania has stolen. Titania refuses to give him up, so Oberon exacts his revenge. He commands that his servant Puck find a rare flower, its juice a love potion. Puck drizzles the philter on Titania’s eyes as she sleeps. When she opens them, she will fall madly in love with the first creature she sees.

Demetrius, seeking Lysander and Hermia, has instead found Helena. He is not pleased. Helena’s visible anguish at his rejection softens Oberon’s heart. He directs Puck to apply his love potion to Demetrius’s eyes.

Just then Hermia and Lysander arrive on the scene. As ordered, Puck anoints the Athenian’s eyes. When he opens them, his heart surges with passion for Helena. There is, however, a bit of a problem. Puck has confused his Athenians. It is Lysander who’s fallen for Helena! He instantly abandons Hermia as if he’d never met her.

Meanwhile, players set to perform at Theseus’s and Hippolyta’s wedding have made their way to the forest to prepare their play. Puck listens nearby as Nick Bottom and Company rehearse. He can’t resist a bit of mischief, and bestows an ass’s head on poor Bottom. The actor’s comrades flee in terror. Titania awakens – and who should her lovesick eyes spy but ass-headed Bottom!

Hermia, bereft at losing Lysander, is sure that Demetrius has killed him. He denies it, so she goes to look for her beloved.

Oberon sees the tangled state of affections and realizes: this is all Puck’s fault! He orders Puck to find Helena and bring her hither. He paints Demetrius’s eyes with the love potion.

Puck brings Helena to this scene. She’s trailed by Lysander, imploring her to return his love. Just as Oberon planned, Demetrius awakes to the sight of Helena and is overtaken by passion for her. But what’s this? She’s also pursued by Lysander? Now Demetrius really will murder his rival! He and Lysander challenge each other to a duel.

Helena, utterly bemused, is certain that she must be the victim of an elaborate ruse. Hermia is simply heartbroken.

There shall be no bloodshed in this fairies’ wood. Oberon has Puck imitate Lysander’s and Demetrius’s voices, leading them on a futile chase until they fall exhausted into a deep sleep. Puck washes Lysander’s eyes with an antidote. When he awakes, he will again be in love with Hermia.

Puck declares that all will be as it should be when the lovers awaken: Lysander and Hermia will be a couple, and Demetrius will love Helena as she loves him. As act 3 gives way to intermission, all four slumber to the strains of Mendelssohn’s gentle Nocturne.

As act 4 opens, the four lovers remain asleep in the dark, magical forest. Titania, however, is still pursuing Bottom, ass head and all. Oberon, now possessed of the changeling he sought, decides Titania has suffered enough. He lifts the love spell from her. Puck relieves Bottom of his ass’s head.

Theseus and Hippolyta, on an early morning hunt, stumble onto the slumbering quartet. He wakes them with his hunting horns, and hears them out.

Theseus, his heart warmed by their tale of confusion, reverses his decree. Egeus’s desires are as nothing compared to love. Lysander and Hermia shall marry, and so shall Demetrius and Helena. In fact, they’ll join in the festivities of his own marriage.

Bottom and company return from Athens to perform at the lavish wedding feast in Theseus’s palace. Theseus asks them to present the play Pyramus and Thisbe for the lovers. All retire for the night.

All but the fairies, that is. They sing and dance. Oberon blesses all three couples.

And who has the final word? It’s impish Puck, of course: "If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended: That you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear … So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends."

CAST
 
Theseus and Oberon John Hedges
Hyppolyta and Titania Elana Kepner
Egeus A Neil Thackaberry
Lysander William John Liptak
Hermia Natalie Welch
Puck Stuart Hoffman
Nick Bottom Bob Russell
Peter Quince Terence Cranendonk
Francis Flute Andrew Knode
Snout Mark Seven
Snug Ryan Nehlen
Starveling Michele McNeal
Cobweb Marybeth Hobson
Peaseblossom and Philostrate Catie Hewitt
Moth Karla Cummins
Mustardseed Anna E White
 
The Akron Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Christopher Wilkins
Director Craig Joseph
 
Ballet Excel Ohio
Artistic director Mia Klinger
Choreographer Eric Yetter
 
Summit Choral Society Children’s Choir
Director Heather Cooper
Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn was about as far from the stereotype of the starving artist as you could imagine. His father was a well-heeled and highly discriminating banker, and he saw to it that Felix got the best education money could buy.

Such an education inevitably included mind-broadening travel. Felix was no more than a teenager when he visited Paris and Switzerland, and papa’s pocket change paid his way to Britain in 1829 at the age of twenty. There he soaked up the damp, severe beauty of Holyrood Chapel, where Mary Stuart had been crowned. This set him on course for his Scottish Symphony.

Italy was quite another matter. Felix landed there late in 1830. It wasn’t long before Italy’s sunshine and energy had put paid to the grim grey memories of Scotland – and (for the moment) to the Scottish Symphony.

The festivals, the celebrations, the coronation of a pope: all this brilliant color shifted the musical gears of Mendelssohn’s mind into overdrive. In early 1831 he wrote home that he’d begun work on a new symphony – "the merriest piece I’ve yet written," he said. He expected to finish it in short order, but that was not to be. Mendelssohn didn’t have the Italian Symphony in performing condition until Spring of 1833, just in time to conduct its premiere in London in May.

You could argue, in fact, that Mendelssohn never actually finished his Italian Symphony as such. He never published it, and continued to revise and tweak it off and on for the rest of his life. The Italian Symphony finally saw print in 1851, listed as "opus 90, posthumous."

Italy’s vitality and energy radiate from the very first brilliant A major bars of the symphony – no slow, dark introduction here! The entire movement has a strong forward, upward drive. The andante second movement is the embodiment of Mendelssohn’s melodic skill (also on display in his Songs Without Words). His third movement echoes an elegant Mozartean minuet and trio.

The finale is where the Italian Symphony really gets technically interesting. Mendelssohn labels it a saltarello – a medieval Italian dance – and it ends in the key of A minor. In finishing a major-key symphony in the minor mode, Mendelssohn left Mozart well behind.

By Mendelssohn’s time, a transition from minor to major wasn’t too extraordinary, even in a large, multimovement work. After all, Beethoven had begun his fifth symphony in minor and moved to major.

But going the other way – from major to minor – wasn’t nearly as common. Not unheard of, mind you; a handful of Scarlatti keyboard sonatas and a Handel concerto had followed this pattern, well before Mendelssohn’s time. (I should note, though, that the Handel was from his opus 3. That set was a notorious cut-and-paste hack job, so it’s entirely possible that ending a major work in minor was literally accidental there!)

It’s also true that Mendelssohn himself had composed his opus 14 Rondo Capriccioso for piano a year before the symphony, beginning it in E major and wrapping it up in E minor. And in the early 20th century, the Danish composer Carl Nielsen would effectively dispense with the idea of a symphony being in a key, more or less aiming his last three symphonies toward keys.

However, in his era’s symphonic literature, Mendelssohn seems to stand alone. I don’t know of any symphony prior to Mendelssohn’s Italian which begins in a major key and ends in a minor key.

Felix Mendelssohn (Wikimedia Commons)

Two hundred years ago today, February 3rd, 1809, Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn welcomed a baby boy who would eventually produce, introduce and reintroduce the world to his and other composers’ (notably JS Bach’s) elegant and inventive music.

Many of Felix Mendelssohn’s greatest compositions have never been published, but thanks to the work of an organization called The Mendelssohn Project, some of these lost compositions are now coming to light and to the concert hall.

Listen to Unearthing Mendelssohn’s Lost Works at NPR.org

 

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