DECEMBER 6, 2014 CONCERT — A Mendelssohn Duet / Loann Scarpato
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (Op. 11)
Composed between 1824 and 1829, Felix Mendelssohn’s first “official” symphony was actually his thirteenth. As a student he had already written twelve string symphonies, but this one also included winds, brass, and percussion instruments. Mendelssohn‘s confident handling of full orchestral forces marked his mastery (at age fifteen!) of the symphonic genre. Influences of both past and contemporaneous composers are present: Weber’s overture to Die Freischütz in the stormy opening, Haydn’s late symphonic slow movements in the Andante, Beethoven’s scherzos in the Menuetto, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in the opening theme of the finale, Bach in its double fugue section, and Beethoven again (e.g., the 5th Symphony) in the propulsive major-key ending. Even in his teens, Mendelssohn possessed a distinctive voice combining the elegance and balance of Classicism with the harmonic richness and rhythmic turbulence of early Romanticism.
Felix Mendelssohn: The First Walpurgis Night (Op. 60), “Druid’s” Last Stand
Spring comes late to the Harz Mountains of central Germany, particularly to their highest peak, the Brocken, one of the snowiest places in northern Europe. From time immemorial, its treeless summit has been the scene of ceremonial bonfires kindled on the night of April 30th/May 1st to welcome the coming of spring. Similar May Day celebrations took place throughout pre-Christian Europe, and a popular spring carnival continues annually in the Harz Mountains to this day. The earliest revelers on the Brocken were nature worshippers enacting spring fertility rites and honoring an “All-Father” identified with the god Odin or Wotan. When in the late 8th century the Frankish ruler Charlemagne set out to Christianize his Holy Roman Empire, the pagan Saxons were forbidden, on pain of death, to worship their old gods. Christian guards stationed in the mountains denied access to the sacred sites.
At the same time, a less militant form of conversion accompanied the establishment of monasteries and convents. An English Benedictine nun (Walpurga or Walburga in the Catholic calendar of saints) arrived in the region as a missionary in 748 and became an important abbess. She was canonized on May 1, 870, and, as often happened when the Christian calendar overlaid pagan seasonal rites, one of her feast days became associated with the ancient May Day observances. The similarity of her name to “Walburg” (or “Waldborg”), an old local fertility goddess, no doubt helped secure her veneration. One of Walburga’s saintly attributes is as a protectress against witchcraft. Yet the eve of her feast day, Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night), came to be a kind of springtime Halloween, when graves opened and the dead walked and witches cavorted with the Devil. How did this transformation occur? In spite of the best efforts of Charlemagne’s soldiers and the benevolent missionaries, pagan practices continued in secret. Legend has it that the nature worshippers had learned enough about Christian superstitions to disguise themselves as witches and devils, frightening the Christians out of the mountain heights and enabling the old rituals to take place unhindered.
This, at least, is the “fable-like history” that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) depicted in the ballad-poem Die erste Walpurgisnacht in 1799. Goethe had first visited the Brocken in 1777; there is still a hiking trail approximating his route to the summit. Goethe wrote the poem expressly to be set to music as an extended vocal composition, with a cast of characters personifying the conflict between Christians and pagans. Goethe called the latter “Druids,” although there is no chronological or geographic coincidence of that priestly Celtic caste with the pagan Saxons of the Harz region. Druidism was a popular theme in early Romanticism, however, identified with the forces of nature and resistance to the constraints of “civilization,” and the poem clearly shows that Goethe’s sympathies were with the heathens.
Composition, Performance, and Publication History
Goethe asked his musical adviser, the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, to set the text. At length, when Zelter could do nothing with it, he turned it over, with Goethe’s approval, to his precocious pupil Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Zelter had taken Mendelssohn to meet Goethe in 1821, and an affectionate friendship had developed between the twelve-year-old prodigy and the venerable poet, sixty years his senior. They last saw each other in 1830, the year when Mendelssohn began work on his setting of Goethe’s poem. He completed an early version of the piece in February of 1832, and it was performed privately (probably in piano-vocal format) that October at one of the Sunday musicales held in his family home. Mendelssohn conducted the first full-scale public performance with orchestra, chorus, and soloists in Berlin in January of 1833, where it was well received.
Mendelssohn later became dissatisfied with the work and revised it extensively between 1842 and 1844, changing the orchestration to add piccolo, bass drum, cymbals, and trombones, and making many alterations to the vocal parts. He conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the premiere of the revised version on Feb. 2, 1843. It was published as his Opus 60 in 1844. Because of the complexity and number of revisions between the first and final versions of the score, no critical edition was published until 2010, when Bahrenreiter issued an authoritative edition of the revised version in both piano-vocal and full score. It includes the English-language text created under Mendelssohn’s supervision by his favored translator William Bartholomew for the 1844 London edition of the score. In addition, Mendelssohn’s copyist Eduard Henschke made an arrangement of the entire piano-vocal score for piano duet, which was approved by the composer and published in 1845. The work was very popular with the public and critics alike. A staged version was presented in 1860 (well after Mendelssohn’s death) and was so successful that it became a staple of the theater repertoire not only in Germany but in Vienna and Paris as well.
It is easy to see the attraction of the text for Mendelssohn. He was an adept musical scene-painter whose imagination was ignited by nature’s grandeur (as in the Hebrides Overture), secret midnight gatherings in mist-shrouded forests (the music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and sacrificial fires (“The Fire Descends from Heav’n” from Elijah). He wrote to his sister Fanny that Die erste Walpurgisnacht “can really be fun; for the beginning there are plenty of spring songs and such; then, when the watchmen raise a ruckus…the witches spook is added and you know I have a particular weakness for that.” When he began the composition at age 21, it seems to have been the wild setting and the drama of the conflict that he found most compelling. Later, when he began to sense deeper themes in the poem, he wrote to Goethe for an explanation. The reply, couched in abstractions, suggests that Goethe saw the story as an instance of dialectical struggle between opposed historical forces; the doomed but valiant attempt of an indigenous worldview to preserve itself seems to have been what interested him.
The Brocken was the locus of another sort of struggle during the 20th century, when again it became forbidden territory. The Harz Mountains straddle the former boundary between the two Germanies, with the Brocken just inside the border of the GDR. During the Cold War, it was used as a listening post for surveillance and espionage by both the East Germans and the Soviets. For more than a generation, until reunification in 1990, the mountain was off-limits to all but military personnel. On the day the fences came down, 100,000 people trekked to the summit in a symbolic freedom walk. Once again, the old order was restored. The area is now a national park and tourist attraction.
Oceans of critical ink have been spilled in debating the extent to which Mendelssohn, a devout Lutheran, may have been influenced in his musical choices, especially in the large choral works, by his Jewish heritage. With respect to Die erste Walpurgisnacht, scholarly opinions have come down confidently on any and all sides of this interesting question. On the one hand, it has been stated that The First Walpurgis Night is a thinly disguised critique of anti-Semitism, with Druids standing in for European Jews. At the other extreme are those who argue that the piece is just what it appears to be on its face, a quasi-historical fable based on German folk legend that capitalized on the Romantic fascination with the supernatural. Post-modern analysis of the work has plunged into theoretical thickets dense with discussion of “identity and alterity,” “cultural topoi,” and “pan-diegetic effects.” Whether the composition can usefully be regarded as an example of “socially engaged artistic discourse” may be open to question; what is not is that The First Walpurgis Night is a cracking good story set to very exciting music.
The piece is often called a secular cantata, but Mendelssohn began calling it a “symphony-cantata” because of its extended orchestral introduction and the fact that the nine vocal movements proceed without pause. The Overture is unusual in that it is not a potpourri of themes or, like a movie trailer, a preview of the scenes to come; the story really begins here with a depiction of wild winter weather on the Brocken, followed by a transition to the spring thaw. Two melodic “cells” are introduced that develop into some of the themes of the succeeding movements. One pattern consists of the notes sol-do-re-mi ascending, often beginning on an upbeat, often including a repeated note, and often stated at the beginnings of themes or important lines of text. The other is a descending chromatic passage, usually beginning on the second or sixth degree of the scale, often when the text expresses fear, conflict, or aggression.
Overture: Allegro con fuoco – Quasi l’istesso tempo (in A minor)
Winter storms give way to the spring thaw.
No. 1: “Now May again breaks Winter’s chain” – L’istesso tempo – Allegro assai vivace (A major) – Tenor soloist, women’s chorus, full chorus
The pagan Saxons greet the spring and prepare to go up the mountain to make their annual sacrifices to the “All-Father.”
No. 2: “Know ye not a deed so daring dooms us” – Allegretto non troppo (in D minor) – Alto soloist, women’s chorus
An old pagan woman warns that their Christian oppressors will kill them if they’re caught. The other women echo the warning.
No. 3: “The man who flies our sacrifice deserves the tyrant’s tether” – Andante maestoso (in A minor) – Baritone soloist, men’s chorus
A Druid (i.e., a pagan priest) urges defiance of the Christians, and the other men agree.
No. 4: “Disperse, ye gallant men” – Allegro leggiero (in E major) – Full chorus
The pagans send guards stealthily into the forest to protect the approaches to their sacred site.
No. 5: “Should our Christian foes assail us” – Recitative – Andante – Allegro moderato (in G minor) – Bass soloist, men’s chorus
One of the pagan guards suggests impersonating demons to scare away the Christians. The others run with the idea.
No. 6: “Come with torches brightly flashing” – Allegro molto (in E minor) – Men’s chorus, women’s chorus, full chorus
All join in a raucous, mocking masquerade of a “Witches’ Sabbath.”
No. 7: “Restrain’d by might” – L’istesso tempo – Andante maestoso (in A minor) – Baritone soloist, full chorus
The Druid priest and other pagan worshippers light the sacred fire and offer their prayers to the All-Father.
No. 8: “Help, my comrades” – Allegro non troppo (in C minor)
Meanwhile, a Christian soldier spies the ersatz “witches” in the mountain mists, and he and his terrified men flee.
No. 9: “Unclouded now, the flame is bright” – Andante maestoso (in C major) – Full chorus, baritone soloist
The Druid priest and all the pagan worshippers hail the divine light of the sacrificial fire and proclaim that it will shine forever.