Monday, June 21, 2010

Late nIght thoughts on Mendelssohn's Overture to Midsummer Night's Dream

"At the first sound of the mysterious magic chords with which the overture begins," wrote Ernest LaPrade in his 1925 book Alice in Orchestralia, "a spell seemed to fall upon the vast auditorium."

LaPrade (1889-1969), was concert master for Walter Damrosch during the Music Appreciation Hour series and also conducted the “Orchestra of the Nation.” He was trying to capture the impact as young Alice hears an orchestra for the first time and selected the Overture from Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for "The Midsummer Night's Dream."

The Overture still casts a spell. Part of the magic derives from a strategy of tonal shades involving the same two keys used by Vivaldi in the Spring concerto, which I wrote about yesterday. The Mendelssohn introduction opens in E major with a bright G# voiced as the highest pitch. The first chord is scored for two flutes only and as each successive chord is played the texture thickens as additional instruments are added.

It is important to hear that the opening chord has only two pitches: E and G-sharp. There is no B. This detail may seem incidental, but it was part of a compositional strategy that is manifest later in the work.

Much later in the work Mendelssohn finds himself in C-sharp minor during the retransition at timing [5:36]. Here he writes a haunted tune and allows the final C-sharp to extend, asking it to be held underneath the first chord played by the two flutes, who play the E and G-sharp exactly as they did in the introduction.

Because the opening chord never contained a B this trick works: Mendelssohn can layer the E and G-sharp of the flutes over the C# pedal in the strings, forming a C-sharp minor triad. He then stops the C-sharp and continues along in E major, with the identical progression from the introduction, as if a modulation had taken place. In an overture filled with cleverness and charisma it is easy to overlook details like this one.

The unexpectedness of the opening chord of the work figured in an anecdote from Boston on page 29 of the Joseph Horowitz book "Classical Music in America." Horowitz relates a story told by Thomas Ryan, a clarinetist in the Boston Academy Orchestra in the early 1840s. The orchestra was one-half amateur and one-half professional and was taking on this work at a time when it would still have been "new music."

The conductor George James Webb "began by telling us that he had no score; so he stood up alongside of the first-violin desk and prepared to conduct. Rapping on the desk he gave the signal to begin; out piped two flutes,--nothing else. He rapped again, implying that the players had not been ready to begin, then he said, 'We will try again.' He gave the signal--and out piped the two flutes. That caused a little twitter of surprise, and we all looked quizzically at each other. Mr. Webb, however, dutifully gave the signal for the next 'hold' or chord, when two clarinets joined the two flutes! More surprise. At the third hold the fagotti and horns were added, and at the fourth hold the entire woodwind section, all sounding most distressingly out of tune.[...]At the ends of the violin passage, the [winds] again held a very dissonant chord for two measures, which was so abominably out of tune that it was really as if each man played any note he pleased; and it was so irresistibly funny that again everybody burst out laughing...That last dissonant chord ended the first rehearsal of the Midsummer Night's Dream overture. We never tried it again."

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