About this work
This is the fourth of Mendelssohn's seven overtures and was written before the similarly maritime Hebrides Overture, Op. 26. It was composed in 1828 and inspired by a pair of poems (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) by Goethe, who very much liked young Mendelssohn's orchestral setting. The same poems were used by Beethoven to produce a short choral work with the same title.
Mendelssohn meant to create an unorthodox form comprising two pictures, though in performance the "Calm Sea" portion sounds like a conventional slow introduction to a fast overture. One musical idea pervades the whole composition, generating the main motive of the opening section and both main themes of the "Prosperous Voyage" section. In mood, the music moves from the depressed feelings of the opening (a "calm sea" was a disaster for merchants in the days of sailing ships), where a slow chordal accompaniment in strings support anxious woodwinds, to the activity and optimism of the second section, where plucked strings depict the sails snapping to and the flute part gains a hopeful melody. Cellos take up a fine melody as the ship makes forward progress. Finally, it ends in an Allegro maestoso coda expressing celebration on sighting land, which is where Mendelssohn allows his poetic imagination to be swamped by conventionality, with insincere brass and timpani. On the other hand, the overture is remarkable for its wide rhythmic variety.