MENDELSSOHN A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture
DREAMS AND REDEMPTION
One of the most striking things about this concert program is that the “soloist” is a string quartet: four musicians. And so this becomes a concert for your eyes as well as your ears – a concert in which the musical interactions that occur at every level in every performance will be visibly dramatized on the stage.
You’ll get to see and hear this in the first two pieces. Mozart’s Serenata notturna is unusual in that it features a serenade quartet (two violins, viola and double bass) supported by the main string orchestra. But the main piece to make use of our guests, the Pacifica Quartet, is an exciting new work, Redemption, by Canadian composer Christos Hatzis.
Hatzis’ music emerges from a profound and powerful inspiration, which has also given him his title. The “dreams” of this program come to us courtesy of Mozart’s whimsical “night music” and Mendelssohn’s magical interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.
A LADDER TO GOD
Redemption: Book 1, for string quartet and chamber orchestra
Christos Hatzis Canadian composer (born 1956)
Hatzis’ strongest influences, musically and philosophically, include early Christian spirituality and his own Byzantine heritage, but also non-classical music genres and popular idioms. He is an advocate of borderless culture, and through his music is “trying to establish a conversation with everyone, not just the musically literate.”
Redemption is a work in progress – five ‘books’ that can be performed independently or as a cycle. Its overarching theme has been inspired by the seer and mystic Edgar Cayce (1877–1945) who meditated on the story of humanity’s spiritual fall and redemption.
In Book 1, a musical thread is provided by a quotation of the opening theme from Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra, made famous (and its cosmic character emphasized) when Stanley Kubrick used it in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In particular, the sudden shift of this quotation from C major to the darker key of C minor and then, later in the music, back to a triumphant C major becomes a symbol of fall and redemption. The first movement is predominantly in C major and the blazing climax of the Strauss theme is heard most overtly just towards its end. The second movement culminates in the shift to C minor (fall from innocence), and the third movement, while not “in” C major, returns to that key at the very end.
Hatzis’ original voice embraces familiar musical sounds and references that some might call naïve, but which in fact are a means to draw us deeper into the music. It’s impossible to describe the intricacies of this music or its profoundly conceived philosophy here, but a few signposts can be shared:
At the dawn of time…
The string quartet represents the human element – Adam and Eve – in the archetypal narrative of the music, while the orchestra for the most part represents the draw of consciousness, “the knowledge that makes one be like ‘God.’” In the first movement the quartet introduces a gigue (reminiscent of Nova Scotian fiddling and unlike anything heard up until that point in the music),
which is then “corrupted” by its orchestral surrounds.
Fall from innocence…
The second movement follows the allegory of the fall as told in Genesis. Although knowledge may be God-like, it is innocence and purity of heart that gives entry to the Kingdom of Heaven, and this innocence is represented by the string quartet with a passacaglia, a compelling expansion of ideas over an inexorably repeating bass line. The bass line:
The beginning of the passacaglia:
Against this the orchestra introduces dissention, temptation through “forbidden” harmony, which leads ultimately to collapse and corruption. The music tells a story but, more important, it mirrors a psychological process of seduction and corruption.
Lord of righteousness…
The third movement is based on a single theme, borrowed from Hatzis’ choral symphony Sepulcher of Life (2004), which is also Book 5 of Redemption. Like a fractal, the music replicates itself at various levels of magnification from the motivic to the overall structure. Towards its close, Hatzis evokes the sound world of the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony,
as the music pivots into a return of the “redemption” theme. The end may seem unexpected and unassertive, but in the context of the cycle it is a mark of the longer journey to come.
Read Christos Hatzis’ own detailed discussion of the philosophical themes and musical character of the Redemption cycle here (PDF)
Redemption: Book 1 was commissioned by CityMusic Cleveland with funds from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
Mozart’s Serenata notturna
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Austrian composer (1756–1791)
Mozart grew up in Salzburg, where serenades – music for outdoor entertainment – were a way of life, and so he composed a great many of them. (Once he moved to Vienna, the serenades all but stopped, although it was in Vienna that he wrote his most famous serenade, Eine kleine Nachtmusik.) The brilliantly crafted and very entertaining Serenata notturna – literally a night-time serenade – was composed in 1776.
If you’ve seen the movie Amadeus you’ll have seen a Mozart with a wicked sense of humor, and it’s not all fiction. Mozart’s letters, and sometimes Mozart’s music, reveal a composer who refused to take life too seriously. This is the Mozart who wrote the Serenata notturna at the age of 20.
Summer in Salzburg…
Living in Salzburg, Mozart wrote many serenades – the city enjoys balmy summers, perfect for outdoor entertainments. Graduation ceremonies, civic celebrations and garden parties – these all required accompaniment, and the social context shaped the music. Serenades were usually built up from many short movements, and because the musicians were often on the move, composers avoiding using cellos, which couldn’t be played standing up or while marching.
Not your typical serenade…
The Serenata notturna breaks with many of the serenade conventions. It was written in the middle of winter – indoor music! – and it has just three movements. But most unusual is something that you’ll see in the concert: Mozart uses two distinct groups of instruments. It’s possible he even placed the two groups in adjoining rooms at the first performance. The first group is a “serenade quartet”: two violins and viola with the mobile double bass instead of a cello. The other is the accompanying string orchestra, with timpani or kettledrums.
That technique of setting a solo group against an orchestra was more common for earlier composers such as Bach, Vivaldi and Handel, and it gives the music a Baroque texture. The natural contrasts in color and volume contribute to the overall majestic (maestoso) character of the March (Marcia), and the timpani gives a very special effect as an accompaniment to the sound of plucked strings.
The Menuetto brings a peasant character into the ballroom – it sounds less like a gliding and graceful minuet and more like the oom-pah-pah of a village waltz.
In the middle there’s a Trio section where the orchestra drops away, leaving the serenade quartet to play alone.
The two violins spin their melodies above an accompaniment from the viola, all supported by the double bass.
With a twinkle in his eye…
The overall mood of the serenade is spirited, exuberant and charming. But in the Rondeau finale Mozart really begins to enjoy himself. Rondo form in Classical music is similar to the verse-and-chorus structure of popular song, allowing for infinite variety within a simple musical scheme. In this rondo, Mozart strings together brilliant ideas, changing tempo, changing rhythmic pulse, making musical ‘in jokes’. The music darts between different styles and characters, from a mock-heroic Adagio (slow section)
to vigorous country dance tunes.
High art, low art.
Through all this, the rondo theme (the equivalent of the “chorus”) makes frequent appearances. And probably the most striking aspect of this recurring theme is the way it ends each time: alternations between two basic chords, then a dramatic pause, followed by a little throwaway ending.
It’s as if Mozart is inviting the performers to do what any 18th-century musician would do with such a pause, and that is to improvise something witty or virtuosic to fill the gap. (This is not something that can be previewed, but these 15-second moments of fun are impossible to miss.) Mozart may have written this music more the 200 years ago, but he wrote it in such a way that it comes to life with every performance.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Felix Mendelssohn German composer (1809–1847)
It’s been argued that Mendelssohn at 17 was an even better composer than Mozart at the same age. This is on the strength of two masterpieces: his Octet and the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1826. And when he returned to Shakespeare’s play 17 years later to write more music he proved he’d lost none of his touch.
Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with four gleaming woodwind chords, a magical evocation of Hippolyta’s first lines in Shakespeare’s play:
Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow new bent in heaven,
shall behold the night of our solemnities.
Then the fairies enter: feathery whisperings from the violins.
This is music by a composer who lived and breathed Shakespeare.
Felix Mendelssohn’s family entertained themselves with impromptu presentations of Shakespeare plays, not just in German but in the original English too. And one day, when he was 17, he decided he’d go into the garden and “dream there” music for his “favorite among old Will’s beloved plays.” He knew this was “an enormous audacity,” but the result – a 12-minute overture – was nothing short of a masterpiece, absolutely worthy of the inspiration.
A fairy overture…
It wasn’t all written in an afternoon. Typically for Mendelssohn, he made painstaking revisions, working hard to bring the character of the play to life in music, “to imitate the content of the play in tones.” Where his original draft was simply delightful and charming, the final version is literally dreamlike, full of elfin humor and true musical magic.
To the opening chords and the fairy music Mendelssohn added the lyrical wanderings of the mortal lovers lost in the forest,
the horns of the hunting party
and the boisterous antics of the rustics.
And although he was tempted to leave it out, his friends persuaded him to keep the comical braying of Bottom with his ass’s head.
Even though Mendelssohn follows the conventions of musical form in the overture, he also manages to evoke the whimsy and confusion of the plot, and the fairies have the last word (as in the play) with the return of the four woodwind chords from the opening.
Returning to the dream…
All this was the miraculous work of a teenager. Is it possible to return to a dream and recapture its spirit? Mendelssohn proved that you could by working an even greater miracle when he returned to A Midsummer Night’s Dream 17 years later, this time to write incidental music that would accompany a German production of the play.
Where the original overture had been intended for concert performance – a musical “imitation” of the play – the new music needed to function as a the equivalent of a soundtrack, underscoring and supporting the staged drama. It includes many short pieces, designed to be played under particular sections of the spoken text. But there are also four substantial orchestral numbers, which would have functioned as preludes and interludes, covering scene changes and setting the mood. Played in a concert, these make up a kind of symphony on the play.
A midsummer night’s symphony…
The Intermezzo is the fast and impassioned conclusion to Act II. Hermia has awoken in the forest only to find her lover, Lysander, gone, and you can hear her running frantically through the trees in search of him.
Ah me, for pity! – what a dream was here!
Lysander, look how I do quake with fear:
Methought a serpent eat my heart away,
And you sat smiling at his cruel prey. –
Lysander! – What, remov’d? – Lysander! lord!
What, out of hearing? gone? no sound, no word?
Alack! where are you? speak, an if you hear;
Speak, of all loves! I swoon almost with fear.
No? – then I well perceive you are not nigh:
Either death, or you, I’ll find immediately!
The Nocturne (night music to rival Mozart’s Notturna) is the complete opposite of the Intermezzo. This is tranquil and serene music that provides the transition between Acts III and IV. It’s while the characters (both mortal and fairy) are asleep that mischief is worked and restoration achieved, and so Mendelssohn’s music evokes the magical slumbers, with the first horn given pride of place.
On the ground, sleep sound:
I’ll apply to your eye,
Gentle lover, remedy.
When thou wak’st, thou tak’st
True delight in the sight
Of thy former lady’s eye:
And the country proverb known,
That every man should take his own
In your waking shall be shown:
Jack shall have Jill;
Nought shall go ill;
The man shall have his mare again,
And all shall be well.
The fleeting, mercurial Scherzo was written for the entry of Puck and the fairies in Act II, “How now, spirit! Whither wander you?”
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon’s sphere…
Finally, when the night’s misadventures have been sorted out and the mortals restored to their true loves, there is a grand, triple wedding, accompanied by what is probably the most frequently played piece of music Mendelssohn ever wrote, the Wedding March.
This music has been the first choice for weddings ever since Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter used it for her marriage to the crown prince of Prussia and brides on both sides of the Atlantic followed suit.
Audio credits Musical examples for these program notes were taken from the following recordings:
Strauss Thus Spake Zarathustra (Sydney Symphony/ Charles Mackerras)
Available on iTunes
Audio examples from Redemption are MIDI realizations prepared by the composer.
Beethoven Eroica Symphony (Concertgebouw Orchestra/ Bernard Haitink)
Available as a free download from Dutch Radio 4
(Simple email registration required, radio4nl does not send spam.)
After Mozart (Kremerata Baltica/ Gidon Kremer)
Also available on iTunes
Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Seiji Ozawa, with Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and narration by Judi Dench)
Also available on iTunes This recording includes nearly all of Mendelssohn’s incidental music, together with an abridged version of Shakespeare’s play.