A Midsummer Night's Dream

Felix Mendelssohn

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Op. 61

Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 61, was completed 16 years after he wrote the Overture, Op. 21. The consistency of style and musical unity between them belie the disparate dates of composition. The overture was by an incredibly musically gifted youth of 17, and the incidental music was by the music director of Prussia's King Friedrich Wilhelm IV's Academy of the Arts and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

A Midsummer Night's Dream had always been a favorite of Felix and his sister, Fanny. The commission for the remaining music came from the King, for a Potsdam production of the play, one of several commissions for theatrical music Mendelssohn received while in this post. The producer of the play was Ludwig Tieck, one of the translators of the definitive German version of the play, the same version that the Mendelssohns had enjoyed and absorbed thoroughly as their own.

The incidental music consists of 14 sections, including the overture. There are vocal sections and instrumental movements. The vocal selections include the song "Ye spotted snakes" and the melodramas "Over hill, over dale," "The Spells," "What hempen homespuns," and "The Removal of the Spells." The melodramas served to enhance Shakespeare's text. The remaining sections are primarily cues. The music combines the traditional forms and structures of Classical music with the feeling and expression of the Romantic era. Throughout the sections, Mendelssohn sprinkles themes and motives pulled from the earlier overture to create coherence.

The instrumental movements, Scherzo, Intermezzo, Notturno, and the "Wedding March," are usually excerpted with the overture for orchestral concert performance. The Scherzo appropriately introduces the fairy-world of Act Two with rapid, running passages in the woodwinds, similar to the string passage in the opening of the overture, both set in a minor mode. The rest of the orchestra joins the woodwinds in a Classical sonata-form movement. Several small motives are repeated, up and down, then down and up the scale, to form the development section. The Intermezzo represents the confusion encountered as Hermia awakes, with a swirling melody buffeted about by the orchestra. The rustic players enter jauntily, represented by the bassoons and ending the Intermezzo in the major. A German Romantic horn melody is the theme of the Notturno. The music evokes the dreams of the couples as Puck puts right his previous mischief. The "Wedding March" opens with that oh-so-familiar trumpet fanfare, fitting for the Duke of Athens' wedding. Two trio sections are separated by the opening theme; the final occurrence of the main theme includes twittering flutes and strings, suggesting the fairies' part in the matchmaking. The "Finale" returns to the overture for most of its sparkling material, ending with the same four woodwind chords that begin the entire work.

Although some consider Mendelssohn's work to be lightweight and uninspired, the entirety of A Midsummer Night's Dream proves otherwise in its inventiveness in reviving his older material and in its expression.