The Kennedy Center

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 61

About the Work

Felix Mendelssohn Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
© Richard Freed

The score of Mendelssohn's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream was completed on August 26, 1826, when the composer was 17; the work was given its first performance on April 29 of the following year at Stettin. The incidental music for the play itself was composed in 1842 and was presented for the first time in a German-language production at Potsdam on October 14, 1843. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed music for A Midsummer Night's Dream on November 13, 1932, when Hans Kindler conducted the Nocturne alone, and last performed the Overture, Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March on June 25, 2005, at Wolf Trap, Leonard Slatkin conducting. Substantially complete performances of Opp. 21 and 61 were first presented by the NSO on August 9-12, 1967, under Robert Irving at the Merriwether Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, and were given most recently on August 3, 2000, at Wolf Trap, under Hans Graf.

The combined scores for Opp. 21 and 61 call for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, ophicleide, timpani, cymbals, triangle and strings, with women's voices—two soloists and a chorus—in some of the Op. 61 numbers. Overall duration, 55 minutes.

The category of"incidental music," which has been extended in the form of film and television scores, has accounted for some of the most popular works in the orchestral repertory (and, when we take into account Sibelius's several sets of theater music, some of the most splendid which are not as well known as they ought to be). We think of Beethoven's music for Goethe's Egmont, Grieg's for Ibsen's Peer Gynt, Bizet's for Daudet's L'Arlésienne, Schubert's for Helmine von Chézy's otherwise forgotten Rosamunde, Fauré's (and Sibelius's) for Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande—but by far the most beloved example of this species is the music Mendelssohn composed for Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream. Surely no dramatic or descriptive music has ever fit its subject more ideally, and probably none has been more representative of its composer.

Not least of the several remarkable aspects of this material is that Mendelssohn was able to pick up where he had left off, as it were, after a hiatus of some 16 years when he undertook in 1842 to match his new incidental music to the remarkable overture he had composed at the age of 17. The Overture was a spontaneous response to the play, which was one of his favorites. He and his sister Fanny read Shakespeare as children, in the original English as well as the German translations by Wilhelm Schlegel (their uncle) and Ludwig Tieck."From our youth," according to Fanny,

we were entwined in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Felix particularly made it his own. He identified with all of the characters. He recreated them, so to speak, every one of them whom Shakespeare produced in the immensity of his genius.
Fanny's remarks constitute a concise program note for the Overture, leaving little to be added. Felix chose this endearing work of Shakespeare's for the first of his concert overtures—actually descriptive works such as Liszt would designate"symphonic poems," though in some cases (as also in some of Liszt's) designed to serve as actual curtain-raisers. The fairy world is superbly evoked in the opening measures, as are the portraits of Oberon and Titania and Nick Bottom in the course of the piece, which ends with the opening material brought back to serve as a reluctant, affectionate farewell tothat enchanted realm.

The young Mendelssohn dedicated the Overture, Op. 21, to the Crown Prince of Prussia (to whom he also dedicated his subsequent overtures The Hebrides and The Lovely Melusina). In 1840 the Prince became King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, and in the following year Mendelssohn composed music for a production of Sophocles's Antigone at the New Palace in Potsdam. In the year after that he received the King's personal request that he provide music for a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and nothing could have pleased him more.

As it happened, that same year, 1842, was the one in which Mendelssohn completed another long-begun project, his"Scottish" Symphony, for which the initial sketches had been made on his first visit to Britain in 1829 (during which he introduced his First Symphony there). In responding to the King's request for the Midsummer Night's Dream music he went back still farther, to a time we might say he had never really left, and composed the incidental music, Op. 61, with the same enthusiasm and inspired spontaneity he had shown in the Overture at age 17.

When the play was performed with this music for the first time, in October 1843, the production, directed by Tieck himself, was so flawed that Mendelssohn's contribution was the only part of the event that received a positive response. The music has enjoyed a healthy life of its own ever since, unfailingly evoking the world of Shakespeare's most inspired comedy and firmly establishing Mendelssohn as his similar inspired collaborator across a divide of more than two hundred years.

The Op. 21 OVERTURE of 1826 serves as the curtain-raiser, establishing the atmosphere of the enchanted"forest near Athens" and introducing several of the characters. The Op. 61 material comprises twelve numbered pieces and a finale, music ranging from the familiar fully developed orchestral items to actual song to"melodrama." In this context that term identifes an episode in which speech is framed or punctuated by music; in our presentation we hear only the musical portion of the melodramas.

The numbers actually sung are performed in English, as they are of course when the score is used in productions of the play in its original language. Although Mendelssohn composed these numbers specifically to fit the German text, there are very few points at which the music does not match Shakespeare's own words flawlessly. Indeed, the only such moment that comes to mind is the opening of the song for two fairies (No. 3), in which the music, written to accompany the German text,"Bunte Schlange, zweigezüngt," must support Shakespeare's line,"You spotted snakes with double tongue!" The additional note is inserted smoothly enough, however, to avoid any impression of awkwardness.

First after the Overture comes the SCHERZO. Together with the scherzo of the String Octet and the Canzonetta of the String Quartet Op. 12, this piece represents the quintessence of Mendelssohn's"elfin" character. It was designed as an entr'acte between Acts I and II, introducing the scene in which Puck makes his first appearance.

A MELODRAMA follows immediately, accompanying a fairy's speech to Puck ("Over hill, over dale") and leading directly to the MARCH OF THE FAIRIES, in which Oberon and Titania enter with their attendants.
SONG WITH CHORUS ("You spotted snakes") is the lullaby sung for Titania in Act II, Scene 2. At its end, with Titania asleep, Oberon enters, squeezes the flower on her eyelids, and speaks his incantation in the MELODRAMA,"What thou seest when thou does wake . . . "

FIRST FAIRY. You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
News and blind-worms, do no wrong;
Come not near our fairy queen.
Hence away!

CHORUS. Philomel, with melody,
Sing in our sweet lullaby;
Lulla, lulla, lullaby; lully, lulla, lullaby;
Never harm,
Nor spell, nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So, good night, with lullaby.

SECOND FAIRY. Weaving spiders come not here;
Hence, you long legg-d spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.
Come not here.

CHORUS. Philomel with melody, etc.

FIRST FAIRY. Hence, away! Now all is well.
One aloof stand sentinel.

The INTERMEZZO connecting Acts II and III is in two parts. The first (Allegro appassionato , A minor) represents Hermia's distraught search for her bewitched lover Lysander; the second, a more relaxed section in A major, leads directly to the MELODRAMA in which Bottom, Quince et al. meet to rehearse their little drama"Pyramus and Thisby." When Peter Quince finishes his instructions to his players, Puck steals in ("What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here") to audit their rehearsal.

The NOCTURNE is again an entr'acte, this one occurring between Acts III and IV, at which point Puck sets about, as instructed by Oberon, to rectify the snarled situation he has created involving Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander, all of whom lie asleep in the forest. Oberon, Titania and Nick Bottom (in his equine transformation) enter as the music fades away. In the MELODRAMA that follows, Oberon and Puck enter to discover Titania asleep beside Bottom; Oberon touches an herb to her eyes to waken her ("Be as thou wast wont to be . . .").

The famous WEDDING MARCH is yet another entr'acte—a very grand one that serves as an introduction to the last of the comedy's five acts. Following the march's second trio the curtain rises on the scene in the palace in Athens in which Hermia is married to Lysander, Helena to Demetrius, and Hippolyta to Theseus.

The FUNERAL MARCH, hardly a tragic piece (it includes a playful reference to the Intermezzo), accompanies an episode in"Pyramus and Thisby," performed as an entertainment for the three couples. Following that, Nick Bottom asks,"Will it please you to see the epilogue, or to hear a Bergomask dance between two of our company?" Theseus quickly opts for the latter:"No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse . . . When the players are all dead, there need none to be blamed. Marry, if he that writ it had played Pryamus, and hanged himself in Thisby's garter, it would have been a fine tragedy. . . But come, your Bergomask: let your epilogue alone." The Bergomask, A DANCE OF CLOWNS (a reprise of Nick Bottom's donkey dance from the Overture), is followed by a very brief Allegro vivace which leads to the play's final scene.

In the sung FINALE, the fairies appear at the wedding celebration, and Oberon and Titania give their blessings to the newly married couples. Mendelssohn assigned Oberon's benediction to the chorus, Titania's to a single fairy. This concluding piece begins and ends with virtually unaltered music from the Overture, but includes new material as well.

CHORUS. Through the house give glimmering light
By the dead and drowsy fire;
Every elf and fairy sprite
Hop as light as bird from brier;
And this ditty after me
Sing and dance it trippingly.

FIRST FAIRY. First, rehearse your song by rote,
To each word a warbling note;
Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing, and bless this place.

CHORUS. Through the house, etc.