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Views And Reviews: Overture “The Hebrides”

The composer Felix Mendelssohn was mightily seasick when he took the steamboat trip to the Hebridean island of Staffa.

“Should we fancy that Mendelssohn reflected this unhappy distraction in the quivering oscillations and looming surges of his overture’s opening pages?’’ asks music critic Paul Serotsky.

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Mendelssohn (1809-47) – Overture “The Hebrides”

Crossing the English Channel in Spring 1929 was Mendelssohn’s first nautical experience. Unhappily, it was insufficient rehearsal for the steamboat trip he took, in early August, to the Hebridean island of Staffa. According to his companion Karl Klingemann, Mendelssohn – poor soul! – suffered mightily from seasickness.

Should we fancy that Mendelssohn reflected this unhappy distraction in the quivering oscillations and looming surges of his overture’s opening pages? I see no reason why not! We happily conjure from the music many, admittedly less queasy impressions of the “Lonely Isle” of the work’s original title, from waves rolling and breaking, through salt spray and sea-foam, to the imposing basalt columns of Fingal’s Cave – a cathedral designed and built by Mother Nature.

Mendelssohn, ever the Refined Romantic, was so mustard-keen to express his impressions musically that he rushed off to Fanny a sketch incorporating the famous six-note motive (but whether this was written before or after the trip isn’t clear). The score, however, took a little longer. Eighteen months later he was still busy trying to eliminate a perceived excess of counterpoint over “seagulls and whale oil”.

Although using only a classically-proportioned orchestra, the sound-world of The Hebrides is way ahead of its time. This supremely evocative tone-poem, written years before that genre was supposedly even invented, set a still-unbeaten standard for musical seascapes. Yet its greatest glory is neither of these – that accolade must go to Mendelssohn’s seamless integration of form and content, a strikingly successful bid to reproduce musically his magical adventure’s “encapsulated” nature.

As a rule, Mendelssohn worked “inwards”, starting from big, bold melodies. Here he did the exact opposite, working “outwards” from that compact motive, which forms the first subject and fuels everything else. The second subject exposition’s oh-so-natural lead-back to the first is one obvious symptom of the workings of that pervasive motive.

On the larger scale, he capitalised on the fortuitous parallel between sonata form and his Hebridean experience’s “plot-line”. Although undeclared, I believe it pans out something like this:

Exposition – First subject [A]: Embarkation – the heaving, restless sea (mirroring his landlubber’s tummy?) and mysterious light. Second subject [B, cellos and bassoons]: romantic, comfortably flowing – a sense of impending adventure banishes the collywobbles.

Development – In four distinctly characterised episodes:(1) exhilarated by the watery wilderness, then enraptured by open, calmer sea, sounds of sea-birds [A, emergent “fanfares”], (2) growing wonderment at the first sighting of Staffa [B], (3) tingling with anticipation [A], (4) marching crescendo – mounting excitement on approaching the island and discerning the cave’s massive façade [A].

Recapitulation (not literal!): Slowly entering the cave, where eeriness mingles with a sense of “ceremony”, the strange colours of the rock formations [A], hushed contemplation of this natural “place of worship” [B]

Coda: withdrawal releases a flood of exultation . . . and finally the scene dissolves, like a Midsummer Night’s Dream at dawn.

© Paul Serotsky, 2011


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