In today’s video we’re going to be having a look at Mendelssohn’s incidental music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, op. 61. It contains fourteen movements (including an overture and ending), and was created to be the background music to the famous Shakespeare play.
Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: Backstory
Mendelssohn composed the incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1842, though he wrote the overture 16 years prior, when he was only 17 years old. Despite this time gap, it connects seamlessly to the other 13 movements.
Mendelssohn and his musically-talented sister, Fanny, were big fans of Shakespeare – especially A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was commissioned by King Frederick William IV of Prussia to write the music for this play while working in Potsdam.Among the fourteen movements is the “Wedding March”, which is one of the most famous pieces of classical music ever written.
Some of the music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream involves vocals, and others are purely instrumental. The vocal selections include “You Spotted Snakes” and the melodramas “Over hill, over dale,” “The Spells,” “What hempen homespuns,” and “The Removal of the Spells.” You’ll find echoes of the Overture throughout these, Mendelssohn’s way of making the music coherent.
The instrumental movements, Scherzo, Intermezzo, Notturno, and the “Wedding March,” are usually excerpted with the overture for orchestral concert performance.
- Scherzo (After the first act)
- L’istesso tempo
- Lied mit Chor
- Intermezzo (After the end of the second act)
- Con moto tranquillo (Notturno)
- Hochszeitmarsch (Wedding March after the end of the fourth act)
- Marcia funebre
- Ein Tanz von Rüpeln (A dance of clowns)
- Allegro vivace come I
- Finale (mit Chor)
The Overture starts everything off in the play, and then Act I is entirely without music. Then we have the Scherzo, a lively piece of music, acting as an intermezzo between the first and second acts. That leads to the first melodrama (spoken words over music), followed by a fairy march.The second scene of Act II is the Song with Choir (You Spotted Snakes). At the end of the second act is another intermezzo.
In act II, there’s a march, followed by music derived from the Overture. Next is the Nocturne with a beautiful solo horn passage, meant to accompany the sleeping lovers between the third and fourth acts. There’s a melodrama in the fourth act, and then there’s a reprise of the Nocturne.
The next intermezzo, seen between Act IV and V, is the famous Wedding March. Then we have Act V, full of music because there’s a wedding. We have a funeral march parody, a clown dance (Bergamask), a short allegro and then the ending.
The Overture and incidental music uses the following instruments:
- Flutes (2)
- Oboes (2)
- Clarinets (2)
- Bassoons (2)
- Horns (2)
- Trumpets (3)* (third trumpet added to incidental music)
- Trombones (3)* (all trombones added to incidental music)
- Triangle* (added to incidental music)
- Cymbals* (added to incidental music)
The play is performed in English, as intended by Shakespeare. Mendelssohn actually composed the music to fit both Shakespeare’s English text and the German translation.
Let’s have a listen to several musical numbers in this play and discuss them in turn.
The Overture, op. 21, which a young and brilliant Mendelssohn composed at age 17, establishes the enchanted atmosphere of the play. It’s in the key of E major. It was originally conceived as a concert overture, and not meant to be associated with an actual performance of the play (that would happen almost two decades later). Mendelssohn had been inspired by a reading of the German translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he wrote the Overture.
Despite Mendelssohn being a Romantic-era composer, there are a lot of classical elements in this Overture. It’s in sonata form, for one.
We start with four chords played by the wind instruments. After the first theme is the parallel minor (E minor) part representing dancing fairies. Then we have a second theme, the “lovers” theme. Bottom the Donkey is portrayed by the “hee-hawing” of the strings.
The Overture premiered in Stettin, Prussia. 18-year old Mendelssohn had to trek 80 miles in a raging snowstorm just to get to the concert (his first public appearance).
Let’s have a brief listen to some of the exposition so you can hear the themes we’ve been discussing.
Video credits (for each movement)
After the first act comes the Scherzo, acting as an intermezzo. It has an “elfin” quality to it, fitting since it introduces Puck’s first appearance.
The Scherzo, fast and lively, is a fun dance between strings and woodwinds. It introduces to us the fairy-world. There are rapid running passages in the woodwinds in a minor key, which is similar to the strings at the beginning of the Overture.
Like the Overture, the Scherzo is in sonata form.
Song with Choir (You spotted snakes)
The vocal selection we’ll listen to today is “You spotted snakes”. With Titania asleep, Oberon squeezes the flower on her eyelids and speaks his incantation, and then the fairies sing about protecting their queen.
(Note: This recording is in German).
While the lovers are sleeping between Acts III and IV, we hear the lovely Nocturne. It features a Romantic horn melody, evoking dreams of the lovers. In this Nocturne, Oberon forces Puck to repent and right his many wrongs.
And then we reach the famous Wedding March. It introduces the fifth and final act of the play. Hermia is married to Lysander, Helena to Demetrius, and Hippolyta to Theseus.
It opens with instantly-recognizable trumpet fanfare. The main theme is interspersed with two trio sections – in the final version of the main theme, we hear twittering flutes and strings, which serve to remind us that the fairies were involved with all these marriages.
Princess Victoria’s mother, Queen Victoria, loved this music so much that it was used in her daughter’s wedding to Prince William of Prussia in 1858. And since that wedding, it has been a feature of thousands of weddings since.
It’s in the key of C major, and exists in many versions. For weddings, the March is often played on the pipe organ. Lizt wrote a virtuoso transcription of the March (as he was wont to do). Vladimir Horowitz, a hugely talented performer, wrote his own transcription for performance.
A Dance of Clowns
Toward the end of the final act, we have a comedic version of a Funeral March. After that, Nick Bottom asks, “Will it please you to see the epilogue, or to hear a Bergomask dance between two of our company?” Theseus refuses the epilogue, but invites the Bergomask.
The Bergomask (A dance of clowns) is a reprise of Nick Bottom’s donkey dance from the Overture and is followed by a very brief musical passage leading to the final scene of the play.It’s rollicking, fun and very catchy.
And that concludes our tour through Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Though we only listened to about half of the movements (and snippets at that), I hope this gave you a better understanding of the composition as a whole.
I highly recommend you check out a version of this play with music online. Even better if there are subtitles to follow along. As with Mozart’s comic operas, it’s a ton of fun to watch, and gives the music much more context.