A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture
Felix Mendelssohn was born on February 3, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany and died on November 4, 1847 in Leipzig, Germany. One of his most well-known works is the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mendelssohn completed the work in August 1826 and originally had it premiered in his private residence in November 1826.
Felix Mendelssohn was in the process of applying and auditioning at various colleges during the 1820’s and because of these auditions, Mendelssohn became more private with performing and with his music (Todd). After its initial private premier, the work premiered in German in February 1827 and later in England in June 1829. Felix Mendelssohn spent much of his career in Berlin, Germany and during the 1820’s Berlin became a center for music and the arts. During the time that Mendelssohn was composing the overture and the years after, Mendelssohn’s career as a composer and performer began to move forward. Felix and his sister, Franny, were educated on the importance and culture of music, literature, poetry, and art during their childhood (Todd). The Mendelssohn family had a close group of colleagues who read literature, composed music, and appreciated the visual arts. In the summer of 1826, Felix Mendelssohn decided to compose a concert overture for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after studying the play. At the time, the parameters of the Romantic symphony were beginning to form and Felix Mendelssohn used elements of the symphony in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, Mendelssohn utilizes traditional overture forms and tendencies, and dissonant chords and motives to articulate the mood and drama of the associated play.
William Shakespeare completed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1596 and premiered in England in 1605. Regarded as one of Shakespeare’s best comedies, the play is set in Ancient Greece in Athens. (Bryant 57) A Midsummer Night’s Dream features three separate plots that connect around Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. One of the plots surrounding the wedding is Hermia’s. Hermia is in love with Lysander but is being forced to marry Demetrius by her father. As the Duke of Athens, Theseus orders that Hermia must marry Demetrius or she must become a nun. During the play, Hermia and Lysander escape Athens into an enchanted forest with fairies. The fairies place a spell on Lysander accidentally and he falls in love with someone else, Helena. Along with Hermia’s plot, Peter Quince has a theater company who is performing a play for the wedding. In this plot, we meet Bottom, who wants to play all the characters in the play and who is not very smart. His head is eventually turned into the head of a donkey by one of the fairies, Puck. The last plot around the royal wedding is that of Oberon and Titania. Oberon and Titania are the king and queen of the fairies in the enchanted forest. Titania disobeys Oberon and to teach her a lesson, Oberon asks Puck to create a love potion so he can shame Titania. In the end, Peter Quince and his players put on the play but it is awful and everyone watching believes it is a comedy. Puck lifts the love potion off Lysander and Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius, and Helena get married with Theseus and Hippolyta. The fairies retreat to the forest and the play ends with Puck making amends to the audience. The Shakespearian comedy incorporates Ancient Greek ideals coupled with a whimsical, ethereal setting in a dream-like world (Bryant 58). The play features themes on court, love, dreams, and the supernatural to create comedic relief. Felix Mendelssohn, after reading the play, used these themes and characters to construct the overture to the play.
Felix Mendelssohn is regarded as a classicist who attempted to respect the conventions of the classical style, yet expand some of the resources that went into the writing of the large orchestral form (Stedman 108). Mendelssohn’s classical influence focuses especially in form and harmony. For the Romantic era, Mendelssohn’s chord functions and harmonies throughout his works remain tonal and diatonic rather than chromatic. Mendelssohn uses chromaticism and dissonance for melodic expression, rather than harmonic. Another characteristic of Mendelssohn’s works are his extensive use of counterpoint and melodic development. He uses counterpoint as a way develop themes and harkens back to imitative techniques of the Renaissance. The orchestra at the time of his compositions was becoming larger and more expanded, especially in the brass section because of the advancements in the creation of brass instruments. (Stedman 108). Much of Mendelssohn’s music and compositions feature programmatic aspects. In the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, there may not have been a program to accompany the performance but many of the people coming to watch the performances would have known the play associated with the overture and could imagine the characters. The last staple of Mendelssohn’s music is his implementation of scherzo scoring for woodwinds at a fast tempo with rushing sixteenth notes and close voicing. All the characteristic that contribute to Felix Mendelssohn’s style and technique are found in his overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture attempts to reconcile the Classical symphony with the Romantic. Mendelssohn uses sonata form for the entire duration of the piece with distinct sections and motives based off the characters and themes of the play. After Mendelssohn introduces a theme, he immediately develops the theme by orchestrating it in another section. The opening and first motive found in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture features open chords that do not belong to a specific key until measure 4 ends on a E Major chord, followed closely by and E minor chord in the strings in measure 6. The slow introduction harkens to Mendelssohn’s classical style and influence of the French Overture on the development of the symphony. The French Overture would begin with a slow introduction and while this introduction is six measures long, not in a specific key, and does not feature dotted rhythms, Mendelssohn makes the attempt to reconcile the Classical symphony with the Romantic in the first six measures of the piece. Mendelssohn repeats these chords of the introduction three times over the course of the overture.
The chords themselves create an ethereal feeling and represent the enchanted forest of the play because of the use of the woodwinds and the openness of the chords. Additionally, Mendelssohn uses the opening chords and notes to create the other themes of the exposition and overture. Todd writes, In this masterpiece [A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture], Mendelssohn constructed a rich network of motifs, all drawn from a descending tetrachord embedded in the celebrated wind chords, to capture Shakespeare’s elves, lovers and tradesmen, and the Athenian court (Todd). The descending tetrachord in this instance is E, D, C, and B. The tetrachord is presented in its major form (E, D#, C#, B) and its minor form (E, D#, C, B). Some motives in the piece are based off the tetrachord but some motives use certain pieces of the tetrachord, all parts of the tetrachord, or not based off the tetrachord. To begin the exposition, the second motive is introduced in measure 6. The motive is fast, staccato eighth notes found in the strings. The eighth notes are meant to mimic the sound of bees and insects of the forest as well as the fairies flying in the play (Brittan 12).
The staccato eighth notes are the main developmental device in the overture. While the eighth notes are played, the winds interject with chords from the introduction. The forest theme is developed through key for the first sixty-two measures of the piece and does not return until the development section in measure 250 but in the key of B minor. In the development section, the forest theme is fragmented across the string parts and when the winds enter, they have a part based off the eighth note theme but it is fragmented and altered for the winds. The recapitulation begins with the slow introduction and the forest motive, like in the beginning of the piece. The third motive that Mendelssohn utilizes throughout the piece is the court motive, meant to represent Theseus and Hippolyta’s reign and status.
This theme acts as a transition to the secondary theme found later in the piece and alludes to a later theme that Mendelssohn creates. The motive is introduced in the strings but with the full orchestra, meant to symbolize the pomp and circumstance of the characters. The fourth theme is the first secondary theme of the overture. The theme represents the lovers found in the play, Theseus and Hippolyta, Helena and Demetrius, and Lysander and Hermia. Much like a classical symphonist, Mendelssohn makes the secondary theme lyrical while the beginning theme is fast and articulate.
The love motive features a descending scalar line shown in slow sections and sped up during the faster sections of the piece. An aspect of the overture that opposes Classical characteristics of the symphony is the implementation of two secondary themes. The first secondary theme, which is the love theme, comes in at measure 138 and once Mendelssohn develops the theme, the expectation is to move to the closing theme and the development. However, Mendelssohn, introduces a new theme which represents Bottom, one of the characters in the play who gets transformed into a donkey.
The descending major ninth mimics the sound of a donkey and the faster, comical eighth notes preceding the interval give the illusion of chaos and contrast the love theme before. The last of the motive that Mendelssohn introduces is the hunting calls. The hunting call theme in the horns becomes a closing theme that signals to the listener that the exposition is ending and moving toward the development, much like Theseus finding the sleeping lovers in the glen at the end of the play.
The hunting calls were used slightly before the closing section of the exposition during the court motive in the transition but were not exposed until the end of the exposition. Mendelssohn takes all the motives and intertwines theme through extensive counterpoint and repetitions of the themes. During the development section, Mendelssohn chooses to omit all the themes of the exposition except for the forest motive. However, the forest motive is interrupted by the winds and the forest motive is fragmented across the orchestra. Once the recapitulation occurs in measure 620 with the ethereal theme of the beginning, Mendelssohn reintroduces the themes of the exposition but in different keys and instruments and brings all the themes back before concluding the overture with one last declaration of the love theme followed by the ethereal chords at the beginning. Through counterpoint, presentation of themes, focus on form, and dedication to the depiction of the play, Felix Mendelssohn displays the Classical and Romantic aspects as well as the staple characteristics of his compositional style.
Through traditional conventions of form, the dissonant harmonies, and the motives throughout the piece, Mendelssohn articulates the themes, motives, and drama of the play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the overture. Later in his career, Felix Mendelssohn composed incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1842 to complement the play and the overture. Sections from his incidental music like the Wedding March and the scherzo, No. 1. The entire opus includes the overture and can go along with the play. Along with the additions he made to the work, Mendelssohn impacted early and late Romantic composers like Berlioz and the development of the programmatic symphony.
Brittan, Francesca. On Microscopic Hearing: Fairy Magic, Natural Science, and The Scherzo Fantastique. Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 64, no. 3, 2011, pp. 527“600., doi:10.1525/jams.2011.64.3.527.
Bryant, J.A. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare and the Uses of Comedy, University Press of Kentucky, 1986, pp. 57“80. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130hzbt.8.
Stedman, Preston.The Symphony. 2nd ed., Prentice Hall, 1992.
Todd, R. Larry. Mendelssohn(-Bartholdy), (Jacob Ludwig) Felix. Oxford Music Online, 2001, doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.51795.
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