Marin Alsop's Guide To Mendelssohn's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

May 24, 2014
Originally published on May 24, 2014 2:09 pm

Growing up as a violinist, Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto ranked among my top 10 Holy Grail pieces. As I got older, I moved on to his Octet and Piano Trio in D minor, which became two of my favorite chamber works. There's almost nothing comparable to playing Mendelssohn's Octet with seven great string players. It's absolutely thrilling, energetic, virtuosic, youthful, fun and challenging. And to think that Mendelssohn wrote it when he was just 16.

Only a year later, at the ripe age of 17, he wrote his Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, completely capturing the magic and frivolity in the ethereal world Shakespeare created. Mendelssohn first performed the overture in a version for two pianos, with his sister Fanny, and then orchestrated it for a public performance the following year.

Mendelssohn was probably the greatest child prodigy since Mozart. He began taking piano lessons from his mother when he was 6 and made his first public concert appearance at the age of 9. As a child he was also a prolific composer, with five short operas and 11 symphonies to his credit by his early teens.

It would be another 16 years before he returned to the overture to use it as the DNA for the complete incidental music he composed to accompany an actual performance of the play. And how perfectly Mendelssohn captures the spirit and essence of Shakespeare.

Mendelssohn's overture is in the key of E major and he begins it with four magical, suspenseful and transforming chords. For me, these opening chords capture the essence, even the moral of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play about unexpected turns in love and life. ("The course of true love never did run smooth.")

Following those chords is the first theme, a scurrying, busy motif in the parallel relative minor (E minor) representing the dancing fairies. A fanfare-like transition (the royal music of the court of Athens) leads to a second, lyrical theme for the lovers. A final group of themes, suggesting the craftsmen and hunting calls, closes the exposition. The fairies dominate as the next section develops, and ultimately have the final word in the coda, just as in Shakespeare's play. But of course there couldn't be Midsummer music without a reference to Bottom, who gets turned into a donkey and is depicted with a braying "hee-haw" in the strings.

Mendelssohn brilliantly incorporated the overture into his incidental music as the first of its 14 numbers and the inspiration for the entire score.

The famous "Wedding March," which we still hear accompanying brides down aisles, was adopted by Princess Victoria in 1858 for her wedding to Prince William of Prussia. The bride's mother, Queen Victoria, loved Mendelssohn's music. I'm sure she never imagined the tradition she started by having it played at her daughter's wedding.

Along with music, Mendelssohn loved language and was extremely well-read. Within his deft grasp of the Shakespeare, he also includes several vocal numbers in the incidental music, representing the actual voices of the fairies.

Songs such as "Over hill, over dale," "The Spells," and "What hempen homespuns" enhance Shakespeare's text and mimic Shakespeare's ingeniously devised play within a play.

Act 1 is played without music. The Scherzo, with its whimsical interplay between strings and woodwinds, acts as an intermezzo between Acts 1 and 2. It leads directly into the first melodrama with text spoken over music. Oberon's arrival is accompanied by a fairy march, scored with triangle and cymbals, a gesture to his unique role as a god.

The vocal piece "Ye spotted snakes" opens the second scene of Act 2. The second intermezzo comes at the end of that act, while Act 3 includes a quaint march for the entrance of the mechanicals, the cast for the play within the play. Mendelssohn quotes music from the overture to accompany the action. The Nocturne, featuring one of the loveliest horn solos ever written, accompanies the sleeping lovers between Acts 3 and 4. There is only one melodrama in Act 4 and it closes with a reprise of the Nocturne to accompany the mortal lovers' sleep.

We first hear the Wedding March between Acts 4 and 5, the latter containing more music than any other act, especially to accompany the wedding feast. There is a brief fanfare for trumpets and timpani, a parody of a funeral march, and a peasant dance that uses Bottom's braying from the overture as its main thematic material.

The play has three short epilogues. The first is introduced with a reprise of the theme of the Wedding March and the fairy music of the overture. After Puck's speech, the final musical number is heard — "Through the house give glimmering light," scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano and women's chorus. Puck's famous valedictory speech "If we shadows have offended" is accompanied, as day breaks, by the four chords first heard at the very beginning of the overture, bringing the work full circle.

A Midsummer Night's Dream contains one of my favorite lines of all time: "Lord what fools these mortals be!" But when I hear Mendelssohn's music all I can think is: Lord how brilliant can one man be?

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With the Memorial Day weekend comes the unofficial change of season. And next week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra helps usher it in with "A Midsummer Night's Dream." A collaboration with Washington, D.C.'s Folger Theater, the production of Shakespeare's play will include the famous incidental music that was written by Felix Mendelssohn. We're joined now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore by our friend Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Maestro, thanks very much for being with us again.

MARIN ALSOP: Oh, my pleasure to be here, Scott.

SIMON: A big show you have going on, isn't it?

ALSOP: Yeah, it's - I mean, it's just so perfect for this time of year, isn't it? I mean, when the seasons change and love is in the air and poetry abounds. But it's going to be an incredible production. It's directed by a wonderful director named Ed Berkeley, and we have seven actors playing the roles of 21 characters. Actors from John Bolger from "Law and Order" - I remember him from General Hospital - Linda Powell from "Chicago Fire." We have just a great cast.

SIMON: And I think nothing denotes the arrival of summer more than a casting call for dogs. I wonder if you can tell me about that.

ALSOP: (Laughter) Well, we have and incredible...

SIMON: They're looking at me in the control room. Like, I thought that was a pretty smooth transition, don't you?

ALSOP: Yeah, really. Well, there are so many things going on in this play. You can throw a dog in. You could probably even thrown an elephant in and nobody would notice.

SIMON: Well, let's listen to the music, of course, too. We have a recording, I guess, with Sir Neville Marriner conducting the Philharmonic Orchestra.


SIMON: This music has such authority. And it's sobering when you come to terms with the fact that Felix Mendelssohn was a teenager when he wrote it.

ALSOP: Mendelssohn was only 17 years old when he wrote this overture. And the thing that we forget is that Mendelssohn was, really, the next great child prodigy after Mozart. So he had been composing since he was a little tot. And by the time he was a teenager, he'd already written 12 symphonies and five operas. So this was not unexpected. But the quality of this overture and the way it captures Shakespeare's drama...

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: ...Is truly amazing.

SIMON: How did he wind up being a part of this play?

ALSOP: He wrote this overture as a stand-alone piece. But then, later, much later, 16 years later, he was asked to write incidental music for the play as a commission from King William the Fourth of Prussia. And so I don't think you say no to those kind of kings. And he did the incidental music for the entire play, but he went back to his overture and he used it as the DNA for all of the incidental music.


ALSOP: One of the pieces that is often excerpted from the incidental music is called "Scherzo from Midsummer Night's Dream." And this is the piece that really introduces the forest and the idea of the fairies and all the busyness going on with them.


ALSOP: And of course, we're going to be introduced to the wonderful character of Puck, who really is the perpetrator of so much of the mischief on behalf of Oberon. So Puck will get the sleeping potion and puts it on their eyelids so that when they wake up, they fall in love with whomever they see. Of course, Oberon wants to play a trick on Titania, his wife. And so when she wakes up, the first character she sees is Bottom, who's been turned into the ass. So she falls madly in love with him.

SIMON: Yeah, it's been known to happen.

ALSOP: It does happen, doesn't it?

SIMON: It does happen quite a lot.

ALSOP: But these fairies, I think, are - they're characters unto themselves. And they have their own little drama going on. And what Mendelssohn does so beautifully in the incidental music is he creates worlds and gives actual voice to the fairies themselves as singers.


ALSOP: In this number, we can hear these two fairies in the voice of the soprano and the mezzo soprano singing the entire forest to sleep.

SIMON: And then...


ALSOP: And then, of course, there're many dramas going on at the same time. And there're two young couples. One's in love with the other and the other's in love. And now, of course, they've all run into the forest chasing each other and misunderstanding each other.


ALSOP: There's this entire drama going on. And what happens in the story is that Puck accidentally, but of course, puts the potion on the wrong person. So well, you know, one wakes up and falls in love with the wrong one, and then everybody's hooked up to the wrong people. And Oberon gets very angry with Puck and says, look, you really have to fix this mess you've made. So Puck goes back into the forest and finally gets everyone to sleep. And that's the moment when we hear the nocturne, which has one of the most beautiful French horn solos in the literature.


ALSOP: Scott, I think this is one of the few moments of genuine calm in the entire play and in the entire music.


ALSOP: And of course, it's a little bit of a calm before the storm. But finally, things start getting righted. And we can get back to the important things like having the royal wedding.

SIMON: Which introduces, I think, one of the most played pieces of music in the world.


ALSOP: I'm not sure how many people know that Mendelssohn wrote the "Wedding March." But what happened was Princess Victoria used this "Wedding March" for her wedding. It was - I believe in 1858. And it just became part of everyone's tradition. Thanks to the incidental music from Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream," we have the wedding march that we use today.


SIMON: Marin, does a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" such as you're about to undertake remind us that this is a major work in each and every dimension, not just the music with which a lot of people are anecdotally familiar.

ALSOP: Well, it has such a reach, doesn't it? My son just attended a ballet performance the other day of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." And it's a play that has inspired so many other ancillary artists from different disciplines. And it's a play whose moral rings as true today as it did in the moment. And for me, it's all about the concept of love and love in its - all of its transformations because love never takes that straight line.

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: But it's always filled with unexpected detours.

SIMON: But it finds a way.

ALSOP: Always finds a way in the end.

SIMON: Marin Alsop, who is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Their production with the Folger Theater of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," with music by Felix Mendelssohn, takes place next weekend. The maestro joined us from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks so much.

ALSOP: My pleasure. Thank you, Scott.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.