Mendelssohn & Brahms

Felix Mendelssohn (Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy im Doktormantel, Stich nach Hildebrandt - via Wikipedia)

Notes on the music for A Midsummer Night's Dream by music arranger John Longstaff...

Mendelssohn’s Overture and Incidental Music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream contains some of the most delightful and enchanting music ever written, and certain items from it (the Overture, Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March) deservedly have a firm place in the concert hall. Choreographers regularly turn to this music for their own interpretations of Shakespeare’s play. However, a quick glance at the list of music included in Northern Ballet’s production indicates that perhaps it isn’t the easiest of scores to use for balletic purposes; and the musically inclined ballet fan is entitled to some explanation of the reason for so much music coming from other sources.

In the nineteenth century performances of plays with substantial incidental music for singers, chorus and orchestra were not uncommon – Beethoven wrote music for Goethe’s Egmont and Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt is in much of the world more familiar than the Ibsen play which it is designed to accompany. In 1827 at the age of 18, Mendelssohn composed his Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream as a concert piece. Some 16 years later he was commissioned by the King of Prussia for further music to accompany a production of the play in Potsdam, which he did most sensitively, not only by composing the familiar pieces included in our ballet, but by subtly underscoring several passages of Shakespeare so that play and music merge into one another almost seamlessly. It probably makes for a beautiful, if long, evening in the theatre. But the fact remains that this is incidental, not narrative music; and if you want to tell the whole story of the play in music and dancing rather more music has to be added, and some rather severe pruning of Mendelssohn’s beautiful but lengthy scene setting is also necessary.

It should be reasonably self evident that unless extreme contrast is the order of the day, the music for a ballet should sound as consistent and continuous as possible. To this end we have supplemented the A Midsummer Night’s Dream music with various other pieces of Mendelssohn - in particular the Octet (which has been more fully orchestrated), the early String Symphonies which by and large remain as Mendelssohn wrote them, and extracts from his 3rd and 4th symphonies where I have made some slight changes in order to adapt the music for Northern Ballet’s smaller orchestra.

After a thorough investigation of Mendelssohn’s orchestral output we had to make the decision to turn to another composer; Brahms was our eventual choice; not without misgivings, as his symphonies represent the pinnacle of their genre in the nineteenth century. However, the lyricism and passion of the movements we are using fitted the dramatic context admirably, and if by using them our audience is moved to explore Brahms’s masterpieces further, then our selection is entirely justified.

John Longstaff
Music Arranger