Saturday, November 9, 2013

Shakespeare and Mendelssohn

Shakespeare has inspired a huge amount of classical music, particularly from the Romantic period.  One of Tchaikovsky's most famous works, for example, is his symphonic poem Romeo and Juliet; he also wrote a piece based on The Tempest and incidental music (basically a score) to Hamlet.  However, probably the most famous musical setting of any of Shakespeare's works is Felix Mendelssohn's Overture (1826) and Incidental Music (1842) to A Midsummer Night's Dream.  In a post at the beginning of the year, I briefly referred to Mendelssohn's most famous piece, his Wedding March, which in fact comes from this incidental music (at 40:32 in the following recording).  Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade borrows a number of effects and chords from the flute parts of the overture.  Here is a recording of both of Mendelssohn's pieces together as a single suite:

The piece is not particularly novel in its form or harmonics; it is actually more or less typical of the early Romantic style in that it follows classical-period conventions of form (there is an exposition, transition, development, transition, and restatement for each theme) and harmony, while adding a programmatic element--if you skim through a copy of the play as you listen to the music, you should be able to pick out some of the correspondences.  It is somewhat unusual in that the lines of the play are sometimes sung over the orchestra; the lines make no sense in this recording because it skips over the unaccompanied, spoken lines between each section.  However, I think the reason that it is so well-known is that it does such a good job of conveying the energy and magic of the play.  (The painting, by the way, is The Reconciliation of Titania and Oberon by Joseph Paton.)

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