Meet Felix Mendelssohn, Composer Of The Original Song Of The Summer

Jun 23, 2017
Originally published on June 23, 2017 7:48 am

It's now officially summer, which means it's time to kick back, pour out a glass of rosé and listen to the ever-timeless Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, by composer Felix Mendelssohn. The German composer wrote the Overture (Op. 21) when he was only 17, but by then he was a seasoned composer with numerous operas and string symphonies under his belt. So while the Overture might be, as musicologist George Grove called it, "the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music," it was par for the course for Mendelssohn.

At the audio link, hear classical-music commentator Miles Hoffman give NPR's Rachel Martin a primer on Mendelssohn and his expansive and beautiful Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I'm Rachel Martin with four chords in celebration of summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX MENDELSSOHN'S "A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, OVERTURE IN E MAJOR, OP. 21")

MARTIN: And that is the opening to the Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by the 19th century German composer Felix Mendelssohn. And now that summer's finally here, it is the perfect time to celebrate one of Mendelssohn's most famous works. Here to help us do that is classical music commentator Miles Hoffman.

Good morning, Miles, happy summer.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Thank you. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right, so the big question - did Mendelssohn actually write this piece, Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in the summer?

HOFFMAN: He did. But the key fact - the key fact is that it was the summer of 1826.

MARTIN: Why so key? What was happening then?

HOFFMAN: In the summer of 1896, Mr. Mendelssohn was only 17 years old.

MARTIN: Wow.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. The musicologist George Grove - very famous musicologist - once wrote that the Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is, and I quote, "the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music."

MARTIN: The greatest marvel of early maturity.

HOFFMAN: Yep.

MARTIN: So I thought that it was actually Mozart who was considered the greatest classical child prodigy in music.

HOFFMAN: Mozart was a great prodigy, famous for starting to write music when he was 5. And he was a great prodigy at the keyboard. But Mozart didn't write great works, lasting works, until he was an old man of 18 or 19.

MARTIN: He's far more mature.

HOFFMAN: Mendelssohn was far and away the greatest child prodigy composer who ever walked the planet. He was absolutely one of a kind. By that time he was 15 he had composed four operas, 12 string symphonies - which are still played, by the way. And at 16 he composed his Octet for strings, which is not just a marvel of early maturity but actually one of the great - all-time great masterpieces of chamber music.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX MENDELSSOHN'S "STRING OCTET IN E FLAT MAJOR, OP. 20")

MARTIN: It's beautiful.

HOFFMAN: That's the opening of the Mendelssohn Octet, Rachel. It was written when Mendelssohn was 16. And I hate to make us all feel bad, but by the time he was a teenager, Mendelssohn was also a wonderful pianist and violinist, and he was an accomplished artist.

MARTIN: Yeah, now you're just rubbing it in.

HOFFMAN: I am rubbing it in. And...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HOFFMAN: ...In his spare time he had translated major Latin works into German and - let's see, a little later on, he was single-handedly responsible for rescuing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach from obscurity. And he became the first great orchestral conductor of the modern era.

MARTIN: Wow. What were we doing at 16, Miles? Not that.

HOFFMAN: That's what I think about (laughter).

MARTIN: Not that. All right, let's get back to the Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream." What makes it so great and lasting?

HOFFMAN: Well, it's got everything. It's beautiful. It's moving. But it's also brilliant and exciting and funny.

MARTIN: It's funny? Do tell.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter) In the space of about 12 minutes, Mendelssohn manages to evoke all the major characters and themes of the play - of Shakespeare's play. But he even manages to work in the brain of a donkey.

MARTIN: What does that sound like (laughter)?

HOFFMAN: Well, we'll hear it. But first, let's go to the - right after the opening chords we hear the fairies scurrying around in the forest.

MARTIN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX MENDELSSOHN'S "A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, OVERTURE IN E MAJOR, OP. 21")

HOFFMAN: And then we have what we might call the royal theme for Theseus, the duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazon, whose wedding everybody's about to celebrate.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX MENDELSSOHN'S "A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, OVERTURE IN E MAJOR, OP. 21")

MARTIN: Yeah, that sounds like royalness (ph) to me.

HOFFMAN: Very royal, yes. And of course, we have a love theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX MENDELSSOHN'S "A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, OVERTURE IN E MAJOR, OP. 21")

MARTIN: Beautiful.

HOFFMAN: Isn't that lovely?

MARTIN: Yeah.

HOFFMAN: And here's where it gets funny. Mendelssohn gives us kind of rustic music complete with heehaws, and that's for the rustic tradesmen who are putting on a play and for the character Bottom, who winds up with the head of a donkey.

MARTIN: Oh, good, the donkey.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX MENDELSSOHN'S "A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, OVERTURE IN E MAJOR, OP. 21")

MARTIN: Is this the donkey?

HOFFMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK.

HOFFMAN: Heehaw, heehaw.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX MENDELSSOHN'S "A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, OVERTURE IN E MAJOR, OP. 21")

MARTIN: I love it. Fairies, royalness, love and donkeys - yeah, everything you could want in an overture...

HOFFMAN: (Laughter) Right.

MARTIN: ...But an overture suggests that it is introducing something. It's supposed to be an overture to something. What is the something?

HOFFMAN: Originally to nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: It was written as a concert overture, a separate piece, a standalone piece, which is actually a very common 19th century form. But a decade and a half later - and by this time Mendelssohn was a world-famous composer - the king of Prussia commissioned him to write incidental music for a production of the play, for "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Incidental music being sort of the rough equivalent of a film score...

MARTIN: Yeah.

HOFFMAN: ...But for a play. So Mendelssohn kept the Overture, but he incorporated it into the incidental music in a very, very clever way. He added a chorus, and he closed the whole piece with the very same chords that opened the Overture.

MARTIN: This piece also contains in it perhaps the most recognizable set of notes in classical music, dare I say.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter) Yes.

MARTIN: Let's listen to this. It's not going to take people very long to figure it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX MENDELSSOHN'S "WEDDING MARCH IN C MAJOR, OP. 61")

MARTIN: I mean, Miles, I can't even listen to that in an objective form anymore because it has been so appropriated by modern culture as the "Wedding March," right? When did it become associated with weddings?

HOFFMAN: I don't know exactly when, but I guess it's cultural appropriation. And I think Mendelssohn - I think he would have been very happy about it because he had a very happy marriage himself, and he had five kids. But I wonder what he would have thought about the fact that for a couple of centuries after he wrote this piece that he meant for a play, thousands of people would walk down the aisle hearing this music. I think it's great.

MARTIN: Pledging love forever and ever, yeah.

HOFFMAN: Forever and ever, yeah.

MARTIN: Miles, what a lovely conversation. Thank you so much.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Rachel. It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players and the host of the South Carolina Public Radio podcast A Minute With Miles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX MENDELSSOHN'S "WEDDING MARCH IN C MAJOR, OP. 61") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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