Considered by some as an early tone poem, Mendelssohn wrote this concert Ouverture in the early 1830s: it’s the musical transliteration of a journey Mendelssohn took in Scotland where he had visited the Hebrides islands, and specifically the island of Staffa, with its basalt sea cave known as Fingal’s Cave. As a concert overture, The Hebrides does not precede a play like, say, Beethoven’s Coriolan Ouverture, or an opera but is a standalone composition.
Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides: analysis
The composing construct
Mendelssohn has the intuition of using overlapping chords to describe the rising of the tide: the violins begin on a F#, the clarinets overlap with an A, and the oboes play a C#. This chord is eluding the typical functional harmony. In a B minor, the key of the piece, we would expect maybe something like an E minor followed by a dominant 7th on the F#: a perfectly normal succession of chords that so much music of the time turns around (Mendelssohn’s included). Instead, here we go from a B minor to a D major to an F# minor, a sort of rising progression of chords eluding the tension and the expected resolution of the A#.
The development of a single cell
Almost the entire piece is derived from the first bar: violas, cellos, and bassoons play this motive
which is not an full long melody like Mendelssohn had written in other compositions. Following the chord progression, the motive rises, again and again. These few notes contain the thematic material for the whole Ouverture.
The compositional technique of The Hebrides is remarkably similar to Beethoven’s 6th symphony, in which the 1st movement spurs out of a motivic cell, while the chord progressions are used to raise the level of energy.
Take a look at the intervals: a descending third, a faster passage going down another third, and then a fourth. Mendelssohn reverts this structure to create the ascending answer to the motive.
The 2 faster notes form a fragment that is multiplied, generating waves that little by little become bigger and bigger: the rising figure of the 2nd violins on bar 16 for example, answering to the descending figure of the 1st violins in the first half of the same bar.
Notice how much the dynamics play in the overall arch of the phrasing, adding to the sensation of the movement of the waves, going from pianissimo to fortissimo within the span of a couple of bars.
On bar 27 1st flute, 1st oboe, and 1st bassoon do not share the same dynamics with the rest of the orchestra and their sforzando is still within a mezzoforte sonority at maximum. Make sure the crescendos and diminuendos of the other sections are contained.
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