Felix Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Felix MendelssohnFELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847): Overture, Op. 21 (1826), and Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Ein Sommernachts Traum), Op. 61 (1842). At two separate times, Mendelssohn composed music based upon Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1826, as a 17 year-old at the start of his career, Mendelssohn wrote a concert overture. Sixteen years later, upon a commission from King Frederick William IV of Prussia, Mendelssohn wrote incidental music for a production of the play which incorporated the existing overture and which was premiered at the King’s New Palace in Potsdam on 14 October 1843.

Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with four chords in the woodwinds. Following the first theme in the violins, which represents the dancing fairies, a transition leads to a second theme, that of the lovers. This is followed by the braying of Bottom with hee-hawing evoked by the strings. A final group of themes, reminiscent of craftsmen and hunting calls, brings the exposition to a close. A development and recapitulation of this thematic material follows. Finally, the fairies return and have the last word, just as in Shakespeare’s play, and the overture ends, just as it began, with the same four chords in the winds.

The A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, Op. 21, was incorporated into the Op. 61 incidental music as its overture and the first of its 14 numbers. Some of the numbers following the overture are also purely instrumental in nature. The Scherzo, dominated by chattering winds and dancing strings, serves as an intermezzo between Acts I and II of the play. The Nocturne, featuring a solo horn doubled by bassoons, accompanies the sleeping lovers between Acts III and IV. The intermezzo between Acts IV and V is Mendelssohn’s famous Wedding March.

The vocal numbers include the song, “Ye Spotted Snakes,” as well as the melodramas, “Over Hill, Over Dale,” “The Spells,” “What Hempen Homespuns,” and “The Removal of the Spells,” all of which serve to enhance Shakespeare’s text. The final musical number is the most extended vocal number: “Through This House Give Glimmering Light,” which is scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano and chorus. Puck’s famous valedictory speech, “If We Shadows Have Offended,” follows and is accompanied, as day breaks, by the four chords heard at the very beginning of the Overture, bringing the work full circle and to a fitting close.