AQA A-Level Notes: Mendelssohn: The Hebrides


Felix Mendelssohn
Overture: The Hebrides

The genesis of Mendelssohn's overture, The Hebrides, can be pinpointed to 7 August, 1829, when the composer was staying on the Isle of Mull during a tour of Scotland with his friend Carl Klingemann. He wrote home on that evening, including with the letter a sketch of the opening bars of this work, explaining the profound effect the landscapes had on him. There is considerable evidence to suggest, however, that Fingal's Cave, a geological feature on the tiny isle of Staffa, was not the source of his inspiration for this work, a view often misheld. The reason for this is that Mendelssohn did not, in fact, travel near this isle until the day after he had written the letter home. It is more likely that his imagination had been caught by the scenery as he travelled along Loch Linnhe and from Oban to Tobermory. The probable misconception was compounded by the composer's title on the first draft of the work of Die einsame Insel ('The Lonely Island'), and it seems likely to have been the publisher's idea to call the publication of the full score and the 1833 piano-duet arrangement Fingals Hohle ('Fingal's Cave').

Dissatisfaction with his first attempt at drafting the work led to a gap of around three years between the conception of the opening thematic material and the completed manuscript. Typical of his self-criticism is his famous comment of early 1832; 'The loud D major section in the middle is very stupid, and the so-called development section smacks more of counterpoint than of train oil, gulls and salted cod'.

The Hebrides is an interesting exemplification of Mendelssohn's musical style in its mixture of Classical and Romantic attributes. The shadow of earlier composers had long been evident in his musical language, especially the refinement of Mozart, with whom he seems to have shared a great sense of musical proportion and phrasing. His study of Bach helped him to develop contrapuntal skills that permeate much of his music (amongst his organ works he wrote several fugues), and Mendelssohn was in no small part responsible for a greater inspection of and admiration for Bach's work following his famous 1829 performance of the St. Matthew Passion.

The Classical traits of this work lie chiefly in its form, which is based firmly on the sonata principle. The three main sections, the exposition, development and recapitulation (with added coda) are all clearly defined, and, according to the general Classical model, the work unites in the recapitulation the differing tonalities of the first and second subjects. The size of orchestra employed in The Hebrides (and in Mendelssohn's works in general) also points back to the previous generation; compare it to the forces used by Berlioz in his Symphonie Fantastique in 1830.

The early nineteenth century saw two developments in music that are relevant to this piece. Firstly, there was the emergence of programme music, in which composers infused music with poetic, literary and narrative ideas. In A History of Western Music, Grout points out that this was done 'not by means of rhetorical-musical figures or by imitation of natural sounds and movements, but by imaginative suggestion'. It should be noted, however, that the term programme music was actually coined by Liszt later in the century. Secondly, there was a gradual awareness and appreciation of the beauty of nature in the arts, something that manifested itself in both the work of composers, painters and literary figures (the poets Heine and Goethe, for example). Early 'programmatic' music, in the nineteenth-century sense, is generally considered to have started with Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and a fascination with nature can be seen in other composers such as Weber (in, for example, Der Freischütz). Therefore the fact that Mendelssohn should be inspired by rugged Scottish scenery to write a work evocative of its atmosphere fits well into this Romantic musical trend.

Despite Grout's comments, the opening of The Hebrides certainly contains examples of natural phenomena depicted in music; the repetition of the opening motif, with its gently undulating shape, is surely a depiction of the waves incessantly lapping around the islands. Also, the depiction of rain during the development (from bar 149) is especially vivid in the way the staccato raindrops gather momentum as the storm approaches. The swell of the sea is clearly audible in the rising bass lines and dynamic arches that can be found in many instances, such as bars 37-38. In addition to these specific instances there are wonderfully atmospheric passages throughout the piece. For example, the presentation of the second subject (particularly in the recapitulation) evokes a magical lull in the weather; the wind drops and the sun peers through the clouds. The choice of keys in the development is also interesting in the use of 'darker' minor keys (f minor and b-flat minor) to herald the start of the rain in bar 149 – both capturing the brooding atmosphere of darker clouds and transporting the listener as far away as possible from the tonic key of b minor.

The Hebrides stands alongside Mendelssohn's Octet and the overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream as great works of the composer's youth – full of imagination, colour and energy, and perfectly formed.

The Hebrides Op.26

Key: b minor

Structure: Sonata form

No. of bars: 268

Bar What Happens Comment
1-9 The main motivic cell of the work (motif A) is presented in the bassoons, violas and cellos over a chord progression that rises in thirds (b minor – D major – f-sharp minor). This is accompanied by sustained notes in the wind parts, which are built up in layers to produce a similar rising feeling. The full wind section heralds a B major chord at bar 8, only to resolve back to b minor two bars later via a plagal cadence. It is interesting to see the dominant minor (f-sharp minor) used so early on in the piece (bar 5), giving a hint of modality to the music. The following use of the tonic major at bar 8 has a sudden, but temporary, brightening effect.
10-25 The violins repeat the opening motivic sequence over a bubbling semiquaver passage in the lower strings. The original harmonic pattern is broken at bar 13, although the violins continue with material related to the motif A for two bars until the cellos and basses surge upwards under a fuller texture at bar 15. This process is repeated in bars 17-20, although the rising bass part is extended in bars 19-20. A two-bar diminished seventh chord in bars 21-22 heralds a falling line in the violins, which is accompanied by a diminuendo in the rest of the orchestra. The rising surges of bars 15 and 19-20, and the subsiding swell in bars 23-25 are vividly programmatic in detailing the sea that surrounds the Hebrides.
26-32 The motif A appears at original pitch in bar 26, at first leading one to expect a repeat of the opening section, but in the next bar this turns out to be further development of this motivic cell. Harmonically these bars reinforce the tonic key of b minor, as it consists of two drawn-out cadences, which resolve to the tonic in bars 30 and 33. Extra tension is added through the diminished seventh harmonies of bars 27 and 31. The wind provides both a countermelody and harmonic padding. The opening shape of this countermelody (bar 26.3-27.2) could be related to the cello part in bars 3 & 4, which contains the same shape on a D major harmony.
33-46 The oboe and bassoon take up a fragment of the previous countermelody from bar 19. This fragment (motif B) is then used as the main motivic material for the next section. It is accompanied by a triplet figure in the violas that keeps the rhythmic momentum of the music going. Motif B is then swapped between violins (bars 35-36, 41-42) and the upper woodwind and violas (bars 37-38). Diminished seventh harmonies are again evident, such as in bars 35 (first beat), 37-38 and 41-42. In these last two examples, the diminished seventh provides the harmonic basis for a swell very similar to that heard previously at bars 19-20. Each of these swells is followed by a static two bars of F-sharp major harmony, contrasting tension with a serene calm. In bar 45 an f-sharp minor harmony is introduced which is subtly changed in the second half of the bar to a dominant seventh on A. This is then extended for a further bar for the resolution to D major in bar 47.
47-56 A new key (D major) is established and a new second subject theme (motif C) is presented by the cellos and bassoons underneath shimmering string chords. The passage is not totally harmonically stable however, since the music veers towards G major in bars 49-50 (note the C-naturals) and b minor in bars 52-53.
57-66 A repeat of the second subject material with different orchestration. The theme is heard in the violins, whilst the semiquaver movement is transferred to the lower strings. The clarinets and bassoons fill out the harmony.
67-76 Short section containing development of motif A over a stepwise-rising bass line, leading to the tonic D to herald the exposition's coda.
77-95 Coda section, closing the exposition and affirming D major as the current tonal centre. This dramatic episode involves the whole orchestra and is given great energy by the fanfare-type brass parts and timpani rolls. Very little thematic material used, the emphasis being more on the harmonic progression and full texture (especially at the huge perfect cadence in bars 88-89). A transposed motif A is used to open this coda section, played by the violins and flutes. The violins continue developing the motif until bar 83.
96-122 The main development section begins by destabilising the D major tonality using a series of transposed appearances of motif A. Apart from the first, each appearance is heralded by a fanfare in the wind section. Mendelssohn uses a different key for each version, and these keys are on the whole quite remote from the preceding one. The tonal scheme here is:

b minor (bar 96), E major (bar 100), C major (bar 104), G major (bar 106), B-flat major (bar 108), F major (bar 110). Further modulations follow in bars 112-117 (c minor then g minor), after which the music settles back into D major. At bar 112 the clarinets and bassoons introduce a new declamatory motif over sustained string chords. On closer inspection this motif can be seen to be based on the first violin part in bar 17 (which is in itself based on motif A).
Note that a significant number of the key changes here are between keys a third apart, something harking back to the rising b minor – D major – f-sharp minor statements of motif A at the opening of the piece.
123-148 The opening bars of the second subject appear at bar 123 in the cellos in their original key (although an octave higher). The harmonisation this time interestingly incorporates a flattened seventh (C natural) in bar 124, acting as an appoggiatura onto a minor subdominant chord. This fragment of motif C is imitated by the violins and is followed by further imitation of the chord IV feature. The octave leap in the first violins at bar 129 is followed by a series of falling octave figures that show a development of motif A, which similarly falls through an octave. The flute in bars 139-143 later takes up the same feature.

The violas introduce a repeated triplet figure at bar 132 (similar to bar 33), which picks up the momentum after the relatively static previous nine bars.A modified motif B is repeated by the flutes in bars 135-137 in a passage that moves harmonically into f minor, although an f minor chord is not heard until bar 140. The strings' falling scale in bars 131-139 is reminiscent of the more drawn-out descent in bars 23-25.Bars 140-148 are basically a transposed repeat of 131-139, with slightly different orchestration, including a timpani roll for dramatic purposes. This time the music heads into b-flat minor.
Harmonically, this passage starts on a relatively stable D major plateau (following the instability of the preceding passage), but within 25 bars there is a dramatic move to the dark and remote keys of f minor and b-flat minor. The programmatic aspects of this are obvious; the skies are blackening.
149-168 The woodwind and strings develop motif A in an imitative dialogue. The music shifts harmonically with virtually every statement of motif A, although a sustained A in the oboes between bars 152 and 157 shows a note common to each of the tonalities explored. At bar 153 the tonality suddenly drops a third from F major to D major; this kind of key change has been seen previously in the development. The staggered addition of the trumpets, trombones and timpani are part of both a dynamic and textural crescendo that is heightened in its latter stages (bars 160-164) by a rising stepwise bass-line and a corresponding harmonisation (in sixths) in the oboes (joined by the flutes in bar 163). The ascent becomes more drawn-out at 165, with each harmony being held for two whole bars. The frantic string writing here is accompanied by fanfare gestures in the clarinets and trumpets relating back to bar 77. These are then copied by the bassoons and oboes a bar later at 167, where a two-bar diminished seventh harmony maintains the tension.
169-179 This passage consists of a dominant preparation of F-sharp in anticipation of a return to the tonic (b minor) for the recapitulation. Thus, a sustained F-sharp can be found somewhere in the orchestra in every bar of this passage except bar 172. The brass and upper woodwind start this feature by continuing with the preceding fanfare idea. The rising chromatic scale in the strings in bars 175-7 once again maintains the sense of swelling waters. The texture is suddenly reduced in bar 178 to just the flutes, followed by violins and clarinets together effectively sustaining a trill on an F-sharp. This passage surely represents the height of the storm at sea, although, just like the changeable British climate, it finishes in an unpredictably abrupt manner.
180-201 The recapitulation begins with motif A occurring in the violas and cellos (but without the bassoons as at the beginning of the piece). The original music is modified; motif A is presented only on b minor and D major, whereas the original included a third presentation on f-sharp minor. Instead, two extra bars are added after each presentation (182-183 and 186-187), which are based on the same motif.Bars 187-188 reflect 17-18, after which it again deviates from an exact repetition; instead the first violins dwell upon the octave leap of motif A over rising bass line which moves into e minor. This move to e minor is continued in the falling string lines of bars 194-195 but in 196 they snake away from e minor by hinting at D major, before sliding further into b minor through the introduction of an A-sharp in bar 198. A sustained F-sharp in the oboes, cellos and basses reinforces this F-sharp major dominant seventh harmony as a dominant preparation for the return of the second subject (although it is obviously on a much smaller scale than the dominant preparation of bars 169-179). Mendelssohn is compressing and modifying the original material in this recapitulation; the original 46 bars that preceded the arrival of the second subject are here condensed to just 22.
202-216 With a surprising twist the expected harmonic resolution in bar 202 turns out to be B major instead of the prepared b minor; this allows the second subject to be presented in the tonic key and keep its major tonality. A solo clarinet plays the theme over calm, sustained chords in the strings. It is then joined, mostly in thirds, by the second clarinet, creating an oasis of tranquillity and dwelling on the newfound key of B major. By moving to the tonic major for this passage, Mendelssohn is adhering to the sonata form custom of uniting the differing tonalities presented in the exposition.
217-243 The beginning of the piece's final, long coda. The C-naturals and A-naturals in this bar indicate a move away from B major. The trill-like material in the violins (transferred to the bassoons and oboes in bar 219) hints at the start of the recapitulation, but the agitated motif introduced by the oboe in bar 217 (motif D) is new and shows a relation to previous motifs only through its being based on the interval of a third (the interval that starts both motif A and motif C). Motif D is subsequently taken up by the violas, violins and modified by the woodwind in bars 221-222. The music here turns back towards the tonic (b minor), which erupts at bar 226 marking the start of some extra development of motif A in the strings underneath a manic first violin part. Motif A is presented in b minor in bars 226-227, G major in bars 228-229 and e minor in bars 230-231, followed by appearances in f-sharp minor and D major. This is significant as it shows the motif falling through a third with each presentation, the opposite of the original presentation. A triumphant presentation of the motif by the brass, second violins and violas in bars 231-233, accompanied by the full orchestra, gives way to just the string section who gradually drive the music back towards b minor. Mendelssohn's developmental imagination can be seen in bars such as 237, where the repeated semiquaver cell in the first violins is based on the corresponding shape that occurs within motif A; the composer is generating accompanimental material from thematic fragments.
244-268 A turbulent rise and fall in the strings in bars 244-245 once again depicts a huge wave, over which the woodwind slide chromatically downwards. This feature is repeated, after which the wind recall the fanfare gesture, the brass repeating it a bar later. Bars 250-253 are entirely based on the harmony of C major, the Neapolitan key, heralding a dominant seventh chord of F-sharp major (third inversion) in bar 255 that puts the music into the home straight.Bars 256-257 give a final burst of energy with contrary motion between the outer parts thrusting onto a perfect Ic–V–I cadence in b minor. This is repeated with the woodwind reinforcing the texture, leading to four whole bars of repeated perfect cadences to close the work. However, a solitary clarinet interrupts the tutti chord in bar 264 with a final presentation of motif A, and twice more in the following bars to leave the strings and flute to close the work in an unexpected, suddenly subdued mood. The use of the Neapolitan key in the coda is not new in the coda of sonata form movements.