Mendelssohn Overture - The Hebrides

"In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, the following came into my mind there":

Extract from the Hebrides Overture

So wrote Felix Mendelssohn in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull on Friday 7 August 1829. He had reached Mull with his friend Karl Klingemann after a week traveling from Edinburgh through the Scottish Highlands. During the day of 7 August, Mendelssohn and Klingemann had journeyed by steamer from Fort William down Loch Linnhe to Oban, and then from Oban to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.

It was not until 8 August that the two companions set out from Tobermory to visit the Isle of Staffa and Fingal’s Cave. Thus, the music that is sometimes linked to Fingal’s Cave, and which Mendelssohn jotted down complete with indications on orchestration, occurred to him before he ever set eyes on the Cave.

The original title that Mendelssohn chose for the Overture was “Der Einsame Insel Overture” (The Lonely Isle Overture) and he could well have drawn his inspiration from the many “lonely isles” which he will have sailed past on the spectacular journey from Fort William to Oban and then over to Tobermory. But by the time he had completed the first version of the Overture at the end of 1830, he had changed the name to “Die Hebriden” (The Hebrides). A further layer of confusion regarding the title was added in 1834 when Breifkopf & Härtel published the score as “Fingals Höhle” (Fingal’s Cave) but the orchestral parts as “Die Hebriden”. But, in the UK at least, the title used today is “The Hebrides”.

As is often the case with Mendelssohn, who was an inveterate reviser of his works, he was not satisfied with the 1830 version and made changes at the beginning of 1832, writing to his sister, Fanny, in January: “I still do not consider it finished. The middle part, forte in D major, is very stupid, and savours more of counterpoint than of oil [ie engine oil in the steamers in which he travelled] and seagulls and dead fish, and it ought to be the very reverse.” The revised version was ready for its first performance in London at the Philharmonic Society in May 1832. It is slightly shorter and more compact than the 1830 version and the “very stupid” middle section has been replaced.

The Hebrides Overture is in the Romantic tradition of a stand-alone concert overture rather than being an introduction to an opera, or a prelude to a collection of incidental music. It has been described as a tone-poem which reflects the subject of its title, in this case the “oil and seagulls and dead fish” that were such a vivid part of Mendelssohn’s experiences when he travelled to the Western Isles of Scotland.

The Overture loosely follows the pattern of “sonata form” with 1st subject in the tonic (B minor), 2nd subject in the relative major (D major), development section, recapitulation and coda, although the impression is of a free-flowing work which is not restricted or inhibited by formal considerations. The main subjects of the entire work are contained in the opening few bars that Mendelssohn wrote down in Tobermory and the work is the closest example of Mendelssohn taking a monothematic approach to sonata form (although the many themes in his A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture are also discernible in the opening chords of that great work of his teenage years).

The shift from B minor to D major to F sharp minor in the opening six bars give a stark impression; in fact, such parallel moves from one key to another over a short space of time would be something that Mendelssohn, the supreme master of counterpoint and observer of all the “rules”, would normally have avoided at all costs, but here they reflect the primitive bleak beauty of the many islands in the Hebrides that affected him so extraordinarily.

It is difficult to resist the idea that Mendelssohn’s overture is a representation in music of the visual and aural experiences that he had in Hebrides. The calmness of the oscillating accompanying semi-quaver figures that grow out of the opening theme are interrupted by the rising surges in the cellos and basses which give a strong feeling of a sea swell, with waves pushing against a boat or breaking on the shore; in the development section, those same oscillations accompany bleak declamatory exchanges across the orchestra which suggest the vastness of the landscape and seascape, punctuated by the cry of gulls – you never know where the next sound is coming from. And we get a storm towards the end of the development section, such as Mendelssohn will have experienced on his trip out to Staffa.

One of the magical moments in the Overture is the restatement of the beautiful second subject near the end. Originally given to the cellos in the exposition, it is now taken up by first one clarinet, soon joined by a second. The sense of calm is in great contrast to the storm that has gone before and the following headlong rush to the end of the Overture. Anyone who has travelled around the Hebrides will be familiar with these sudden variations in the weather which can change from harsh wind and rain, to serene stillness and back again in a short space of time.

The Overture was conducted at its premiere in London by Thomas Attwood, Mozart’s former pupil. The impact possibly suffered slightly from the fact that it was preceded in the concert by an aria from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville! One reviewer heard echoes of Beethoven in the music (he was possibly thinking of the Pastoral Symphony, where the opening rhythms closely resemble those in the Hebrides Overture) and the reviewer in the Harmonicum said that the composer had succeeded in his design to reflect, “the howling of the wind and roaring of the waves; and [where] nothing living [is] seen, except the sea-bird, whose reign is there undisturbed by human intruder”.

After London in 1832, there were further performances in Germany in the following years including in Leipzig in December 1834 when yet another title was given to the Overture, this time: “Ossian in Fingalshöle” (Ossian in Fingal’s Cave)! But whatever the title, the Overture has remained in the concert repertory to this day and continues to grace many programmes with its beauty and popularity.

© Stephen Carpenter 2024

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