Fingal's Cave Overture
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, strings
notes by James Keays
First performance: May 14, 1832, London.
During his childhood, Felix Mendelssohn was often referred to as the “new Mozart” because, like his famous predecessor, he possessed a phenomenal power to perform and create music at an early age. Except for this shared ability and the fact that both of their fathers were musicians, their lives were radically different. Mendelssohn was the grandson of a philosopher, the son of a banker, and someone whose life seemed almost too easy, without want and blessed with seemingly innumerable successes. Though raised as a musical prodigy, he went on to become a gifted writer and artist, as well. His fame spread as far away as England, where he was a favorite of Queen Victoria. After being offered a number of important European musical positions, he eventually accepted one as director of the Conservatory at Leipzig.
Like Mozart, Mendelssohn went on several grand tours of Europe. Mendelssohn’s trips were undertaken to broaden his education, whereas Mozart’s were for the purposes of both education and to make contacts for possible employment. Mendelssohn’s first voyage to the British Isles took place in 1829. In July and August, he and a friend, poet Karl Klingemann, visited Edinburgh and Abbotsford (where they met Sir Walter Scott). They eventually made their way to the Hebrides Islands and the caverns of Staffa, the most famous of which is Fingal’s Cave. This impressive natural formation, entered only by rowing in on a calm sea, is over two hundred feet long, lined with colonnades of red, maroon, and brown basalt. Yellow, white, and crimson stalactites hang from the ceiling, and the whole is decorated with seaweed, lichens, and patches of snow-white limestone.
Not surprisingly, the rugged islands aroused Mendelssohn’s vivid imagination. Just hours before visiting Fingal’s Cave, he wrote to his sister Fanny, “In order to have you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, the following came to my mind there…” He then quotes the theme that would become the opening of the overture. It wasn’t until over a year later, in Rome, that he wrote the first draft of the complete work. In 1832, Mendelssohn wrote to his family from Paris that he still wasn’t satisfied with the work. He quickly completed a final revision, and the first performance took place in London on May 14, 1832. Its success was immediate. Within the confines of traditional sonata form, Mendelssohn was able to succinctly describe both the desolation and rugged beauty of the islands. Wagner later called the work “one of the most beautiful pieces we possess.”