Mendelssohn and The Paganism of Youth

I mean by ‘Paganism’ that unoppresed and delighted sense of being trouble-free, of accepting appearances at face-value and feeling generously full of general goodwill and joy, in a thoughtless and sunny kind of way.

It seems to me to be a state people can only attain to when they are adolescent; before the responsibilities of a family and the harsher experience of knock-backs and a need for caution arises to cloud spontaneous ebullience somewhat.

It’s that mood which Shakespeare generates in his earlier comedies; and especially perhaps in that favourite amongst them: A Midsummer Nights Dream. The suspension of reality as it were; on a special occasion like midsummer day, when there are no clouds and the sun is bright and the air clean and one is not tied to a task or to a post etc for the day.

Some pop songs conjure this mood in their lyrics; that mood when you are almost persuaded life is forever and all in the garden is rosy. Like James Taylor’s line ‘I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end”; and then there’s The Marvellettes song titled ‘When you’re Young and in Love’ which has lyrics “Life seems to be/a world of fantasy/when your’re young and in love”.

Of course the music helps but maybe you can play these tracks and feel what I am trying to evoke?!

Now famously, Felix Mendelssohn wrote a set of Incidental Music pieces to Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and famously again he was nineteen years old when he did so. Mendelssohn is renowned as having been a precocious music prodigy;one whom many say, and the slur lives on, that his early promise and fulfilment soon faded and his later works fail to show, or to build upon, the extraordinary ability shown in his early works.

Mendelssohn’s Octet is an early work; and it is praised highly by those who know about these things. His Oratorios and his Symphonies are later works; although Mendelssohn having had such a short and sadly curtailed life there is not anything he wrote really might be termed a late work of his.

I myself beg to differ from the cognoscenti on Mendelssohn’s later works; which I believe need patient and careful exposure to our ears hearts and minds, so that their marvels can be appreciated better. And I do think that especially his Oratorios being on religious themes and his holding a deep faith himself; that these two characteristics are a turn-off for so many people these days, in a four legs good two legs bad kind of unreasoned dogmatism.

But back to Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music. There is a movie starring Mickey Rooney as Puck; in black and white; but sparkling and astounding for its vintage even by today’s CGI standards; in which Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music is used in the soundtrack; and it adds and contributes greatly to the magical and extraordinary bedazzle of the movie.

Any one who has not yet listened to The Overture to this Incidental Music should right now stop reading and go away and buy and listen to it; or go to YouTube and hear it; you have to date missed something altogether astounding. I first heard it and other parts of the Incidental Music, nearly fifty years ago when I was at college. I put on the vinyl disc and sat and I heard at first what I thought was almost the sort of ‘dreamtime muzac’ one gets in shops a so as to sedate a person casually browsing and buying there. I was rather than disappointed bemused, puzzled, as to why such music was considered good enough to be preserved and labelled a classic. I admit all this to my shame and insensitivity.

But I was never a quitter on things like this – I always held in reserve the thought that the fault was with me not the music or the book etc; and gave the vinyl disc another airing a few days later.

(Nor to compete with one of the greats of 20th century science, Richard Feynman, however, who was a remarkable man in these ways of seeing the lack in himself rather than in the experience or phenomenon. He set out as a scientist in life, pretty gung-ho and cocksure until he became puzzled and interested why so many people he loved and respected raved about art and literature and other great heights in the areas of human life.

So he set himself to teach himself how to appreciated these things he was so wooden about emotionally. He persevered and taught himself to draw and became a passable draftsman of sketches and impressions. He exposed his mind to music and to literature and paintings, insisting that the fault, if one might cal it that, was with himself and not with the artefacts. Over time and with some application he grew to see what others before him had seen in the Great Masters and their masterpieces of the past and present; and grew to love these Old Masters and New)

So I tried again, and as usual, when I did and do ‘try again’ something was gained and access began to open up to me. After a few weeks I was wholly enthralled; besotted by The Overture especially but also the Scherzo and The Wedding March of course and other pieces in the set. I have a few things to say later on The Wedding March.

This overture to the Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Felix Mendelssohn is one of the greats of creativity in the European canon. I remember I had a friend around and I put it on the record player (incidentally and not as a pointed gesture, nor as an oppressive attempt to ‘share’ it) and my friend called out when the music had played for 30 seconds or so ‘Radio 2 music!!” – Radio 2 being a BBC light and slightly cheesy music programme for sedate and often elderly persons. Organ music on the Wurlitzer from the pier end, songs from the 1940s and from the Astaire and Rogers’ movies and so on – not the sort of thing for hip up to the mark up to the moment students at all.

My friend to have been low-balled by Mendelssohn as I had been; and he too was a reasonably appreciative listener of quality music. I never knew whether he too gave Mendelssohn another shot.

It seems appropriate here to slot in here as a cautionary warning to us all about our ‘better judgements’ that rejoinder of Oliver Cromwell’s and said to his friend and colleague about a course of action which his friend was proposing and which Cromwell thought to be potentially disastrous: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: think that you might be mistaken”.

Now for some short remarks on the music itself.

The important thing about The Overture is that it ends with the same phrases of music with which it begins. Setting the scene one end of the road and the other as a coda which kind of says to me that beauty is a wrench to part from, but that such things cannot, do not, perhaps ought not, to last, such things as ‘sunny days that I thought would never end’.

There is in the course of the Overture several pauses, sometimes quite long and seemingly quite final; at which one might imagine the music has closed; yet not so; these pauses are perhaps there to tantalise, but they also are usually accompanied by a change of mood; for sunny days that never end can hold many affections and changes of tone and colour. And then there is that delight arises in a listener when the music starts up again on a slightly different tack and the joy is indeed not yet finished and complete.

The Overture begins misinscuelly. One has to stretch one’s ears to hear and listen carefully at the quiet introductory strains of strings playing almost pizzicato at semidemiquaver speed, evoking an idea for me of the enchanted forest of Oberon’s and Titania’s; the forest floor showing a bevy of small mammals like voles, squirrels, stoats, and such, dashing about as they do in their urgent as jerky searches for food and shelter. A bare scene and no other disturbance – until crashes into the field of sensation a high holiday majestic but tremendously joyful full orchestra announcing that today is going to be fun.

As with many of Mendelssohn’s works and best works the Overture is a magical mixture of riotous full blooded effects interspersed between a web of musical delicacy and sensitivity, of tenuous and fragile beauties of composition, which seem as if one disturbance would destroy their brilliance altogether; but – on a good recording – that one disturbance never happens and one as a listener is as it were caught up in Mendelssohn’s gossamer web of delicacy and thrilled to be there.

There are moments, like that moment when the famous notes of the donkey’s bray are rudely intruded and are echoed again; when the sheer knockabout drollery of Shakespeare’s ‘rude mechanicals’ are celebrated in pretty down to earth slapstick musical humour. One might think that such delicacy cannot sit well alongside such slapstick; but yet if any of you have read much of Federico Garcia Lorca you would know differently about how some of the greatest artists are able to span from the earth ground right up to the highest heavens in a single sweep of the pen or the brush. Such was Mendelssohn.

Before the final coda, wherein the opening filigree delicate musical phrases are repeated to finish the Overture, there are a few bars of music which conjure in us a deep deep sense of fulfilled regret; a winding down of the fun and jollities; our evening farewells, but maybe for Oberon and Titania, and for all the magic folk of the forest the morning rest time. The fantasy is over, gone to bed, and like children we are ‘tucked into our sheets’ and made ready for dealing with broad day to come soon. There is hardly anything in music so redolent as these bars saying to us that our ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’ and is now upon us. Magic. Like the Wedding Guest of The Ancient Mariner one ‘cannot choose but hear.’

To finish a few words quickly as I said earlier about The Wedding March. The Wedding march is a tune everyone grows up with and thinks they know it like the back of their hands. For years I was kidded into thinking it was for organs only; since I heard it only in churches played on organs at – weddings.

We grow up with it but in an attenuated, one dimensional version – because perhaps most organ players in churches are amateurs and do their best. The Wedding march is not played on radio because it’s an occasional piece and it only has one cultural context when it is divorced from and taken out as a solo from its Midsummer Night’s Dream context.

So when I first heard The Wedding March played in context by a full orchestra and as orchestrated by Mendelssohn in full voice, it was a different experience, as if I had had one ear all my life and now of a sudden two ears were allowed me to listen to it. Try to get a good orchestral version and when you listen divorce in your mind all thoughts of its use in actual marriages. Clear your mind and listen to its richness and vibrant energetic joy and ebullience. It’s a rhetorical piece, like a generous, stately, kindly, old gentleman who mounts a platform and gives a rousing speech for an occasion. Be carried away by it. Let it grab you.

There’s an old chestnut of a joke in UK about the overture to Rossini’s William Tell. If you are able to hear it without thinking of The Lone Ranger you’re an intellectual. Maybe that’s what’s needed for hearing The Wedding March properly also? A sort of Zen mind discipline?

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