A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture in E major, op. 21
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, tuba, timpani, strings
notes by Katherine Baber
First performance: February 20, 1827, Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland). Carl Loewe, conductor.
Mendelssohn’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has had a particularly successful afterlife. Not only is the concert overture still a mainstay of orchestral programs, but most film adaptations of Shakespeare’s comedy, whether Max Reinhardt’s (1935) or Woody Allen’s (1982), have featured Mendelssohn’s music to some degree. At the time of its composition, however, Mendelssohn had been struggling to fulfill his youthful ambition to write an opera. His Die Hochzeit des Camacho (Comacho’s Wedding), a Singspiel based on an episode from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, had been publicly staged in 1827 when the composer was just eighteen. Like many youthful works, it was unevenly developed, but also showed the lifelong influence of Mozart’s music, particularly his operas and Die Zauberflöte (also a Singspiel). Mendelssohn would entertain proposals from several of the era’s most prominent librettists, which included adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale, but he could not settle on a story. Then several commissions in the 1840s from the king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, gave Mendelssohn the opportunity to try his hand at dramatic music anyway. In addition to attempts at reviving ancient Greek tragedy with music for the choruses of Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, he also produced twelve orchestral numbers and a finale for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For all this material, however, Mendelssohn could turn to the music of his youth—a concert overture on the play from 1826 that already contained all the material he might need.
Having constructed a modified sonata form to mirror Shakespeare’s narrative, Mendelssohn peopled the overture with a variety of motifs to suit the range of the cast, from high to low, supernatural to ordinary. The misty opening chords in the winds evoke the forest and fairies that will shortly wreak havoc on two pairs of lovers from Athens and a hapless troupe of amateur thespians. In these four sonorities, which seem on the surface to float upward, Mendelssohn hid a descending tetrachord (four stepwise tones), a motif long associated with the lament that here casts an aura of mystery instead. From this shady atmosphere comes a theme for staccato strings that flits and floats like Shakespeare’s sprites, whether the royal pair of Oberon and Titania or the mischievous Puck. The bold theme that follows, full of brass fanfares, is actually a recasting of Mendelssohn’s descending tetrachord, as is the soaring “love theme” that eventually follows in the strings and woodwinds. Indeed, the opening four chords are the key to just about every theme in the exposition, with the exception of the braying motif heard from the horns and (nearly to the point of silliness) the swoop of portamento violins—these gestures mimic the “hee-haw” of Bottom, the poor man whose head Puck exchanges with that of a donkey. Shakespeare’s story is, after all, one of transformations, whether magical or a human change of heart. In a formal parallel, these themes pass through the development section and emerge transformed in the recapitulation: re-ordered, re-orchestrated, and re-harmonized. This magic accomplished, we hear a chorale (a gentler version of the bold fanfares) that casts an aura of sanctity over the whole, much as Oberon and Titania place their blessing on the house of the newlywed Athenians. At the end, the airy woodwind chords return one more time before drifting away, “a weak and idle theme” that, as Puck tells us, is “no more yielding but a dream.”