The Kennedy Center

Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage - Overture

About the Work

Felix Mendelssohn Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
© Robert Markow

In 1828 the 19-year-old Mendelssohn embarked on his second concert overture, having already produced the remarkably assured masterpiece Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream two years earlier. Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage was the composer's musical response to two short poems of the same title by Goethe, Meeresstille and Glückliche Fahrt (1796). Though commonly known in English as "Calm Sea" and "Prosperous Voyage," a more accurate translation might be "Becalmed Sea" and "Pleasant Journey," especially in view of the fact that the deadly calm sea of the first poem and windy weather of the second held reverse implications in Goethe's time from what we would wish today. Before the age of steam, a calm sea betokened inability to move; strong winds meant a speedy journey.

The first public performance was given in Berlin in 1828. Mendelssohn substantially revised the work and presented it anew in three performances in 1834. He thought highly enough of this Overture to use it as the opening work on his first program as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on October 4, 1835.

The very title of the Overture (not actually an "overture" to anything, but rather an early example of a tone poem) implies a bipartite formal arrangement consisting of a slow and a fast section. However, Mendelssohn specifically wished to avoid the impression of an Allegro preceded by a slow introduction; he referred to them as two "tableaux," and avoided a strong cadence before the second tableau.

There is much evidence that Mendelssohn was influenced by Beethoven's setting of these poems as a short cantata in 1815. Schubert had also set the Meeresstille, and Karl Goldmark was later to set the poems for male chorus and four horns, but Mendelssohn was the only composer of this group to make the bold move of dispensing with the text and offering a purely instrumental commentary.

Goethe's "dreadful, deathly stillness!" is depicted in the opening bars by the quiet, widely-spaced sonorities of strings, darkly colored with clarinet and bassoon as well. Mendelssohn also, rare for the time, incorporates the contrabassoon to evoke the "deep silence" and "enormous breadth of ocean." The use of prolonged pedal points (sustained low notes) is surely a lesson Mendelssohn learned from Beethoven's cantata, as is the adumbration of all later thematic ideas in the opening passage.

The winds finally pick up (signaled by the flute), the sky brightens, and sailors rush about in preparation to sail again. A modified sonata-allegro form movement follows. Mendelssohn added to Goethe's prosperous voyage the image of the ship gliding into port in a dignified coda with trumpet fanfares, timpani flourishes and the grandest sonorities from the full orchestra.