Mendelssohn’s ‘The Hebrides’ Overture

performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado

In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.

hebrides_sketchComing off the NSO’s New Year Concert of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, it seems very fitting to begin our new series about the symphonic poem with one of his works. In fact, that was the very impetus behind the entire series, really, or one of them.

I should say I’ve had strange classical music experiences. My exposure to and familiarity with the classical music repertoire has been very odd. I became very familiar with some rather obscure things early on, had some weird choices for first exposures to classical music, and also neglected some stapes of the repertoire until just recently.

For example, some of the first pieces of classical music I can remember owning or listening to were a mystery recording of Bruckner’s ninth, by whom I have no idea. There was also Mahler’s fifth with the London Symphony under Harold Farberman. There was Dvorak’s ninth symphony and cello concerto (a bit more standard, maybe), and this, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture, which I later realized was from the Celtic Album by the Boston Pops and Keith Lockhart. I shall not speak at length about it, but I have come to rather detest pops concerts. That’s for a different discussion.

In any case, I distinctly recall the magical, captivating nature of this piece, almost like theme music from a film, as the opening credits rolled and we approach a huge mountain  (or cave, maybe) from the ocean, and the story begins.

It was one of the few pieces of classical music at the time that could hold my attention, that gripped me, so now, coming back to it, my thoughts on it are far more sentimental than many others, but none of this came to mind until I listened to it again for the first time in many years. Proust, maybe, would be proud.

It was featured in a recent concert with the NSO, and I’d actually forgotten it was on the program, but a great chance to experience it live (and a wonderful, sumptuous performance it was).

Mendelssohn’s first visit to England was in 1829, as a result of some invitations. He did well for himself there, largely influencing the English musical scene, composing commissions (like Eliasfor patrons there, premiering works, etc. and then proceeded to Scotland, which produced the beginnings of his third symphony, but also the inspiration for this work.

I include this ‘overture’ as the first installment of the Symphonic Poem series because it’s not meant to be an overture like many of Beethoven’s or Mozart’s overtures; it’s not the introduction to a work, but rather a work itself, a standalone piece. While performances only of overtures in the concert hall as standalone works took place in the Romantic era, it seems Mendelssohn may have been the first, if not one of the earliest to compose a piece to be used in this manner, his Midsummer Night’s Dream overture. See where it all comes together?

This work, only around ten minutes in length, is a really wonderful, captivating, moodscape kind of piece. Wikipedia says:

The overture consists of two primary themes; the opening notes of the overture state the theme Mendelssohn wrote while visiting the cave, and is played initially by the violas, cellos, and bassoons.[6] This lyrical theme, suggestive of the power and stunning beauty of the cave, is intended to develop feelings of loneliness and solitude. The second theme, meanwhile, depicts movement at sea and “rolling waves”.[3]

While maybe that’s an oversimplification, I do find the two major themes here quite gripping. The work, much like Brahms 4 on the same program that night, begins kind of suddenly, very in medias res, no introduction or fanfare or anything, just into the piece, and I feel like it would hold someone’s attention well if listened to appropriately, that is, on a couch/bed, lights off, headphones and the mental image of approaching an awe-inspiring, mysterious cave from the ocean.

That’s it really. The other reason this work is in the ‘symphonic poem’ category is because of its depictions, albeit more vague than some other programs. Again, Wikipedia:

Although programme music, it does not tell a specific story and is not “about” anything; instead, the piece depicts a mood and “sets a scene”, making it an early example of such musical tone poems.

I feel like the ‘scene’ and ‘mood’ are very easy to pick up on here; it’s not some story about a libertine or a personal struggle or whatever, something far simpler and easier to convey, very universal, or subjective, or both.

Anyway, it’s good, magical music, really Fantasia-quality stuff, if you wanted to think about it that way, but also a serious piece of music. This is like Mendelssohn’s Instagram feed of his Scotland trip. He saw a cave, and sketched it (as above) and sent it to his sister.

It’s one of the shortest works in our series for these next few months, but one of the most straightforward, easy-to-grasp symphonic poems, and a good example of the kind of music, a warm-up, let’s say, but also in itself a very effective concert piece.

Bit of a gear-change from what we’d been doing for the past few months, but then again, that’s why I chose it. See you next week.

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