With all due respect to Mozart, Mendelssohn set the standard for musical prodigies. For all Mozart’s talents, he was a young man before he truly discovered a compositional voice that was uniquely his own, while Mendelssohn showed signs of a composer mature beyond his years at age 15 with his First Symphony (1824), a remarkably clever work for such a young mind. However, it was his String Octet, composed a year later, that revealed the full extent of his genius. As Mendelssohn’s acclaim as a prodigy grew, he came to meet an elderly Goethe who, having also heard a young Mozart play in 1763, was so impressed that he declared that Mendelssohn “bears the same relation to the little Mozart that the perfect speech of a grown man does to the prattle of a child.” Only one year older than when he composed the monumental Octet, Mendelssohn wrote his Overture to A Midsummer’s Night Dream, a work that Charles Grove (of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians) called “the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music”.
Nearly twenty years later, in 1843, Mendelssohn was asked by the King of Prussia to write incidental music for a new production of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, providing the chance for a grown-up Mendelssohn to revisit one of his most celebrated works. For the play Mendelssohn composed a series of short works to be interspersed throughout, though only a handful are commonly performed today. However, the entirety of this music had its stylistic genesis in the Overture creating remarkable unity between the incidental music and overture he wrote so long before.
Shakespeare’s play is a rustic comedy following four young lovers and a small troupe of amateur actors who become the unwitting subjects of a group of mischievous fairies all brought together, after many bizarre and humorous situations, for the marriage of Theseus (The Duke of Athens) and Hippolyta (Queen of the Amazons). The first bit of music in the play is the Scherzo, which comes between Acts I and II, and moves at breathtaking speed in a style quintessentially Mendelssohn. Exuding capriciousness and whimsy, the vibrantly buoyant textures effectively evoke the magical realm of fairies and bucolic sensibilities of Shakespeare’s play. The music flickers about wildly, but the playfulness is purposeful – the fairies have a plan.
The Intermezzo, connecting Acts II and III, is marked Allegro appassionato and recounts the frantic search through the forest for a bewitched and lost lover.