Monday, 24 August 2015

Mendelssohn’s Debt to Nature

Arthur Rackham's 'Puck'
I have always regarded Felix Mendelssohn as being an honorary British composer. Other names that fall into this category include Handel (of course), Ignaz Moscheles, Clementi and J.C. Bach. I do not deny their nationalities, but remark that they spent much time in the United Kingdom.  Furthermore, I have always felt that William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was actually set in the Forest of Arden (or the home park of a great estate) rather than a wood near Athens. This born out by the names of the rustics, the legendary nature of Puck and the flora and fauna the playwright mentions. Add to this the fact that Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the play is one of the most ‘English’ creations in the composer’s catalogue and I have a great excuse for printing this short anecdote from Anecdotes of Great Musicians by W. Francis Gates (London, Weekes & Co, 1896). It is one of my favourite books.
I do not answer for the absolute historicity of the story: it seems a nice idea.
‘Many a composer has been indebted to some sound or tone in nature for the suggestion of musical ideas. Nature suggests and man elaborates the melody, though some writers would have us believe that the composer is simply the amanuensis of nature, in many cases. But we must remember that music is art, and that nature supplies nature, not art.
A good composer will turn to account a suggestion from any source, however humble. Mendelssohn took pleasure in acknowledging his debt to nature in these matters. While Mendelssohn was not a Beethoven, while he could not so well depict the rugged, the grand, the heroic, as did that musical Jupiter, yet Mendelssohn was the tone poet of the forest and field, the bright sun, and the blue sky. A friend of his relates how they were walking in the country one day, and getting tired, threw themselves on the grass in the shade and were there pursuing their conversation. Suddenly Mendelssohn seized him by the arm and whispered, "Hush!" A moment later the composer told him that a large fly had just then gone buzzing by and he wished to hear its sound die away in the distance.
Mendelssohn was at that time working on his overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, and not long after, it was completed. He then showed his friend a certain descending bass modulation with the remark, "There, that's the fly that buzzed past us at Schönhausen."[1]
[1] Schönhausen is a city in the district of Stendal in Saxony-Anhalt in Germany.

No comments: