Our music this week is Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture.
My first memory of this piece comes from Kinhaven Institute of Music in rural Vermont, where I spent four weeks during the summer of 2005. I was a homesick ten-year-old, and I didn’t enjoy very much of the summer except for the few hours a week we spent in orchestra rehearsal playing the “Hebridies” overture.
The Hebrides Overture was written by a 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn in 1830 while he was touring Europe with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. After performing in London’s Wigmore Hall, he took a short trip to Scotland with his friend Karl. This small excursion turned out to be one of the most impactful events of his life. He was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Scottish landscape and the richness of the Scottish cultural heritage. After lodging for a few nights on a peninsula in the Inner Hebrides islands off the western coast of Scotland, he conceived the melody of the overture you will hear. (Mendelssohn’s famous Scottish Symphony was also a result of this trip). Despite ample inspiration for the composition, Mendelssohn belabored over the work for over two years before he published it. He wrote to his sister that he was not happy with it at first because it did not give one enough of an impression of “oil and seagulls and dead fish.” Dead fish aside, the opening theme of the Hebrides overture remains a timeless and unforgettable fixture of classical music.
Listen for the sounds of the ocean at the beginning of the overture. They’re hard to miss. The rolling waves are reflected in the deep, undulating swells of the cellos and basses and the lonely seagulls are portrayed by the thinly textured violins. The woodwinds give us the haunting main melody and the brass join later on when Mendelssohn is depicting a storm on the ocean. For those of you who may have played this piece or others like it, it may be interesting to note that the structure of the work is simply sonata form. Listen for a development section that utilizes a secondary melody played by the cellos and bassoons, as well as a recapitulation of the original theme at the end in the strings.