A Midsummer Night's Dream (Mendelssohn)

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"Ein Sommernachtstraum"
"A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Concert overture
by Felix Mendelssohn
Key E major
Catalogue Op. 21
Based onShakespeare' A Midsummer Night's Dream
Composed1826 (1826)
Performed20 February 1827 (1827-02-20): Stettin
Ein Sommernachtstraum
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Incidental music
Mendelssohn Wedding March Theme.jpg
Beginning of the "Wedding March"
CatalogueOp. 61
Relatedincluding "Wedding March" and the overture
Composed1842 (1842)
Performed14 October 1843 (1843-10-14): Potsdam

At two separate times, Felix Mendelssohn composed music for William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream (in German Ein Sommernachtstraum). First in 1826, near the start of his career, he wrote a concert overture (Op. 21). Later, in 1842, only a few years before his death, he wrote incidental music (Op. 61) for a production of the play, into which he incorporated the existing overture. The incidental music includes the famous Wedding March .



The overture in E major, Op. 21, was written by Mendelssohn at 17 years and 6 months old (it was finished on 6 August 1826). [1] Contemporary music scholar George Grove called it "the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music". [2] It was written as a concert overture, not associated with any performance of the play. The overture was written after Mendelssohn had read a German translation of the play in 1826. The translation was by August Wilhelm Schlegel, with help from Ludwig Tieck. There was a family connection as well: Schlegel's brother Friedrich married Felix Mendelssohn's Aunt Dorothea. [3]

While a romantic piece in atmosphere, the overture incorporates many classical elements, being cast in sonata form and shaped by regular phrasings and harmonic transitions. The piece is also noted for its striking instrumental effects, such as the emulation of scampering 'fairy feet' at the beginning and the braying of Bottom as an ass (effects which were influenced by the aesthetic ideas and suggestions of Mendelssohn's friend at the time, Adolf Bernhard Marx). Heinrich Eduard Jacob, in his biography of the composer, surmised that Mendelssohn had scribbled the opening chords after hearing an evening breeze rustle the leaves in the garden of the family's home. [3]

The overture begins with four chords in the winds. Following the first theme in the parallel minor (E minor) representing the dancing fairies, a transition (the royal music of the court of Athens) leads to a second theme, that of the lovers. This is followed by the braying of Bottom with the "hee-hawing" being evoked by the strings. A final group of themes, reminiscent of craftsmen and hunting calls, brings the exposition to a close. The fairies dominate most of the development section, while the Lover's theme is played in a minor key. The recapitulation begins with the same opening four chords in the winds, followed by the Fairies theme and the other section in the second theme, including Bottom's braying. The fairies return, and ultimately have the final word in the coda, just as in Shakespeare's play. The overture ends once again with the same opening four chords by the winds.

The overture was premiered in Stettin (then in Prussia; now Szczecin, Poland) on 20 February 1827, [4] at a concert conducted by Carl Loewe. Mendelssohn had turned 18 just over two weeks earlier. He had to travel 80 miles through a raging snowstorm to get to the concert, [5] which was his first public appearance. Loewe and Mendelssohn also appeared as soloists in Mendelssohn's Concerto in A-flat major for two pianos and orchestra, and Mendelssohn alone was the soloist for Carl Maria von Weber's Konzertstück in F minor . After the intermission, he joined the first violins for a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

The first British performance of the overture was conducted by Mendelssohn himself, on 24 June 1829, at the Argyll Rooms in London, at a concert in benefit of the victims of the floods in Silesia, and played by an orchestra that had been assembled by Mendelssohn's friend Sir George Smart. [4]

Incidental music

Portrait of Mendelssohn by James Warren Childe, 1839 Mendelssohn Bartholdy.jpg
Portrait of Mendelssohn by James Warren Childe, 1839

Mendelssohn wrote the incidental music, Op. 61, for A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1842, 16 years after he wrote the overture. It was written to a commission from King Frederick William IV of Prussia. Mendelssohn was by then the music director of the King's Academy of the Arts and of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. [6] A successful presentation of Sophocles' Antigone on 28 October 1841 at the New Palace in Potsdam, with music by Mendelssohn (Op. 55) led to the King asking him for more such music, to plays he especially enjoyed. A Midsummer Night's Dream was produced on 14 October 1843, also at Potsdam. The producer was Ludwig Tieck. This was followed by incidental music for Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus (Potsdam, 1 November 1845; published posthumously as Op. 93) and Jean Racine's Athalie (Berlin, 1 December 1845; Op. 74). [1]

The A Midsummer Night's Dream overture, Op. 21, originally written as an independent piece 16 years earlier, was incorporated into the Op. 61 incidental music as its overture, and the first of its 14 numbers. There are also vocal sections and other purely instrumental movements, including the Scherzo, Nocturne and "Wedding March". The vocal numbers 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.

Act 1 was played without music. The Scherzo, with its sprightly scoring, dominated by chattering winds and dancing strings, acts as an intermezzo between acts 1 and 2. The Scherzo leads directly into the first melodrama, a passage of text spoken over music. Oberon's arrival is accompanied by a fairy march, scored with triangle and cymbals.

The vocal piece "Ye spotted snakes" ("Bunte Schlangen, zweigezüngt") opens act 2's second scene. The second intermezzo comes at the end of the second act. Act 3 includes a quaint march for the entrance of the Mechanicals. We soon hear music quoted from the overture to accompany the action. The Nocturne includes a solo horn doubled by bassoons, and accompanies the sleeping lovers between acts 3 and 4. There is only one melodrama in act 4. This closes with a reprise of the Nocturne to accompany the mortal lovers' sleep.

The intermezzo between acts 4 and 5 is the famous Wedding March, probably the most popular single piece of music composed by Mendelssohn, and one of the most ubiquitous pieces of music ever written.

Act 5 contains more music than any other, to accompany the wedding feast. There is a brief fanfare for trumpets and timpani, a parody of a funeral march, and a Bergamask dance. The dance uses Bottom's braying from the overture as its main thematic material.

The play has three brief epilogues. The first is introduced with a reprise of the theme of the "Wedding March" and the fairy music of the overture. After Puck's speech, the final musical number is heard – "Through this house give glimmering light" ("Bei des Feuers mattem Flimmern"), scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano and women's chorus. Puck's famous valedictory speech "If we shadows have offended" is accompanied, as day breaks, by the four chords first heard at the very beginning of the overture, bringing the work full circle and to a fitting close.

The movements

In published scores the overture and finale are usually not numbered.

Orchesterwerke Romantik Themen.pdf
  1. Scherzo (After the first act)
    Orchesterwerke Romantik Themen.pdf
  2. L'istesso tempo
  3. Lied mit Chor (song with choir)
  4. Andante
  5. Intermezzo (After the end of the second act)
    Orchesterwerke Romantik Themen.pdf
  6. Allegro
  7. Con moto tranquillo (Notturno)
    Orchesterwerke Romantik Themen.pdf
  8. Andante
  9. Hochzeitsmarsch (Wedding March after the end of the fourth act)
    Orchesterwerke Romantik Themen.pdf
  10. Marcia funebre
  11. Ein Tanz von Rüpeln (A dance of clowns)
    Orchesterwerke Romantik Themen.pdf
  12. Allegro vivace come I

Suite and excerpts

The purely instrumental movements (Overture, Scherzo, Intermezzo, Nocturne, "Wedding March", and Bergamask) are often played as a unified suite or as independent pieces, at concert performance or on recording, although this approach never had Mendelssohn's imprimatur. Like many others, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded selections for RCA Victor; Ormandy broke with tradition by using the German translation of Shakespeare's text. In the 1970s Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos recorded a Decca Records LP of the complete incidental music with the New Philharmonia Orchestra and soloists Hanneke van Bork and Alfreda Hodgson; it later was issued on CD. [7] In October 1992, Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra recorded another album of the full score for Deutsche Grammophon; they were joined by soloists Frederica von Stade and Kathleen Battle as well as the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Actress Judi Dench was heard reciting those excerpts from the play that were acted against the music. In 1996, Claudio Abbado recorded an album for Sony Masterworks of extended excerpts with Kenneth Branagh acting several roles from the play, performed live. [8]


The overture is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, ophicleide, timpani and strings. The ophicleide part was originally written for English bass horn ("corno inglese di basso"), which was also used at the first performance; the composer subsequently replaced this instrument with the ophicleide in the first published edition. [9]

The incidental music adds a third trumpet, three trombones, triangle and cymbals to this scoring.


In 1844 Mendelssohn arranged three movements for piano solo (Scherzo, Nocturne, Wedding March), which received their first recording by Roberto Prosseda in 2005. Slightly better known is the composer's own arrangement, also made in 1844, of five movements for piano duet (Overture, Scherzo, Intermezzo, Nocturne, Wedding March).

Other arrangements for piano include: Franz Liszt's transcription of the "Wedding March and Dance of the Elves" S410, Sigismond Thalberg's arrangement of the Scherzo", Moritz Moszkowski's arrangement of the "Nocturne", and Sergei Rachmaninoff's arrangement of the "Scherzo".

There is a multitude of other arrangements for piano and for other instruments.


Sections of the score were used in Woody Allen's 1982 film A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy . [10]

Portions of the score were used extensively in the film The Scarlet Empress (1934), directed by Josef von Sternberg, starring Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. [11] [12]

Director Max Reinhardt asked Erich Wolfgang Korngold to re-orchestrate Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream music for his 1935 film, A Midsummer Night's Dream . [13] Korngold added other works by Mendelssohn to the mix. Critic Leonard Maltin singles the music out for praise, as contemporary critics did. [13]

Related Research Articles

<i>A Midsummer Nights Dream</i> Play by William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy written by William Shakespeare c. 1595 or 1596. The play is set in Athens, and consists of several subplots that revolve around the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. One subplot involves a conflict between four Athenian lovers. Another follows a group of six amateur actors rehearsing the play which they are to perform before the wedding. Both groups find themselves in a forest inhabited by fairies who manipulate the humans and are engaged in their own domestic intrigue. The play is one of Shakespeare's most popular and is widely performed.

Overture in music was originally the instrumental introduction to a ballet, opera, or oratorio in the 17th century. During the early Romantic era, composers such as Beethoven and Mendelssohn composed overtures which were independent, self-existing instrumental, programmatic works that presaged genres such as the symphonic poem. These were "at first undoubtedly intended to be played at the head of a programme".

Nocturne Musical composition inspired by the night

A nocturne is a musical composition that is inspired by, or evocative of, the night.

Incidental music is music in a play, television program, radio program, video game, or some other presentation form that is not primarily musical. The term is less frequently applied to film music, with such music being referred to instead as the film score or soundtrack.

Johan Halvorsen

Johan Halvorsen was a Norwegian composer, conductor and violinist.

Frederick Stock

Frederick Stock was a German conductor and composer, most famous for his 37-year tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In music, an intermezzo, in the most general sense, is a composition which fits between other musical or dramatic entities, such as acts of a play or movements of a larger musical work. In music history, the term has had several different usages, which fit into two general categories: the opera intermezzo and the instrumental intermezzo.

Wedding March (Mendelssohn) Composition by Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" in C major, written in 1842, is one of the best known of the pieces from his suite of incidental music to Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is one of the most frequently used wedding marches, generally being played on a church pipe organ.

<i>Pelléas et Mélisande</i> (Sibelius)

Pelléas et Mélisande, JS 147 is incidental music by Jean Sibelius for Maurice Maeterlinck's 1892 play Pelléas and Mélisande. Sibelius composed in 1905 ten parts, overtures to the five acts and five other movements. It was first performed at the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki on 17 March 1905 to a translation by Bertel Gripenberg, conducted by the composer.

Toivo Kuula Finnish composer (1883-1918)

Toivo Timoteus Kuula was a Finnish composer and conductor of the late-Romantic and early-modern periods, who emerged in the wake of Jean Sibelius, under whom he studied privately from 1906 to 1908. The core of Kuula's oeuvre are his many works for voice and orchestra, in particular the Stabat mater, The Sea-Bathing Maidens (1910), Son of a Slave (1910), and The Maiden and the Boyar's Son (1912). In addition he also composed two Ostrobothnian Suites for orchestra and left an unfinished symphony at the time of his murder in 1918 in a pub quarrel.

<i>Karelia Suite</i>

Karelia Suite, Op. 11 is a subset of pieces from the longer Karelia Music written by Jean Sibelius in 1893 for the Viipuri Students' Association and premiered, with Sibelius conducting, at the Imperial Alexander University in Helsinki, Grand Duchy of Finland, on 23 November of that year. Sibelius first conducted the shorter Suite ten days later; it remains one of his most popular works.

Felix Mendelssohn's concert overture The Hebrides was composed in 1830, revised in 1832, and published the next year as his Op. 26. Some consider it an early tone poem.

<i>The Tempest</i> (Sullivan) Suite of incidental music for Shakespeares play composed by Arthur Sullivan

The Tempest incidental music, Op. 1, is a set of movements for Shakespeare's play composed by Arthur Sullivan in 1861 and expanded in 1862. This was Sullivan's first major composition, and its success quickly brought him to the attention of the musical establishment in England.

Overtures by Hector Berlioz

French composer Hector Berlioz wrote a number of "overtures," many of which have become popular concert works. They include true overtures, intended to introduce operas, but also independent concert overtures that are in effect the first orchestral tone poems.

Piano Trio No. 2 (Mendelssohn)

The Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66, was written by Felix Mendelssohn in 1845 and published in February 1846. The work is scored for a standard piano trio consisting of violin, cello and piano. Mendelssohn dedicated the work to his close friend and violinist, Louis Spohr, who played through the piece with the composer at least once.

<i>Hooked on Classics</i> 1981 studio album by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Hooked on Classics is an album recorded by Louis Clark and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, published in 1981 by K-tel and distributed by RCA Records, part of the Hooked on Classics series.

<i>A Midsummer Nights Dream</i> (Eugene Ormandy recording) 1977 studio album by Eugene Ormandy

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a 51-minute studio album containing the overture and most of the incidental music that Felix Mendelssohn wrote to accompany William Shakespeare's play of the same name. It is performed by Judith Blegen, Frederica von Stade, the Women's Voices of the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy. It was released in 1977.

<i>A Midsummer Nights Dream</i> (Seiji Ozawa recording) 1994 studio album by Seiji Ozawa

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a 55-minute studio album containing the overture and almost all of the incidental music that Felix Mendelssohn wrote to accompany William Shakespeare's play of the same name. It is performed by Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Seiji Ozawa, with interlinking passages of verse spoken by Judi Dench. It was released in 1994.


  1. 1 2 Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians , 5th ed., 1954 [ full citation needed ]
  2. Grove, George (November 1, 1903). "Mendelssohn's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream". The Musical Times . 44 (729): 728–738. doi:10.2307/905298. JSTOR   905298.
  3. 1 2 "Portland Chamber Orchestra – "A Midsummer Night's Dream" music by Felix Mendelssohn". 2008-08-07. Archived from the original on August 7, 2008. Retrieved 2013-06-30.
  4. 1 2 "Tuba Journal" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-06-30.
  5. Brockeay, Wallace (March 2007). Wallace Brockeay, Men of Music – Their Lives, Times and Achievements. ISBN   9781406736168 . Retrieved 2013-06-30.
  6. "Answers.com". Answers.com. Retrieved 2013-06-30.
  7. "Mendelssohn: Midsummer, Overtures/Burgos". Classicstoday.com. Retrieved 2013-06-30.
  8. "Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night's Dream/Symphony No. 4: Music" . Retrieved 2013-06-30.
  9. Todd, R. Larry (1993). Mendelssohn: The Hebrides and Other Overtures. Cambridge University Press. p. 15. ISBN   9780521407649.
  10. Harvey, Adam (2007-02-28). The Soundtracks of Woody Allen. McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers. p. 97. ISBN   9780786429684.
  11. "The Scarlet Empress. Credits. It is necessary to expand the music credits to see the entire display". catalog.afi.com. Retrieved 2020-05-15.
  12. "The Scarlet Empress (1934)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2020-05-15.
  13. 1 2 "A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2020-05-15.