The Inner Voice: Fire and Water, November 15


Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847): Overture, “The Hebrides”(Fingal’s Cave), Op.26

Now a National Nature Reserve, the Hebridean isle of Staffa is an even greater magnet for tourists today than in the early nineteenth century, when notable visitors included not only Mendelssohn but Keats, Sir Walter Scott and J.M.W. Turner. Fingal’s Cave is the most famous of its many caverns, named after a semi-mythical Celtic chieftain who drove out the Norsemen and who was celebrated in the eighteenth century epic poems of ‘Ossian’, Fingal’s even more mythical son. The cave is some 200 feet deep and 60 feet high, a gaping gannet-gaggled grotto in the pillar-like black basalt cliffs, in which the gushing green sea continuously hisses and reverberates. More than one visitor has likened it to a cathedral complete with stone organ pipes.

Fresh from conquering London with his Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, Mendelssohn climaxed his first English visit in 1829 with a tour of Scotland in the company of a family friend. The two documented their trip in both letters and pencil sketches at virtually every coach stop, leaving a fascinating record of the genesis of two of the composer’s finest works, his Scottish Symphony (No.3 in A minor) and the Hebrides Overture.

Mendelssohn’s overture opens with what many have thought the perfect evocation of “that mighty surge that ebbs and swells/ And still, between each awful pause/ From the high vault an answer draws” (Scott). This is the more remarkable for its having been composed before the composer arrived at the cave—Mendelssohn had outlined the first twenty-one bars in a letter home the previous day. In fact, it was the sight of the islands from the mainland, and their Ossianic associations, that initially inspired him; his first version of the piece (completed in Rome!) was actually entitled The Lonely Island. Renamed The Hebrides, a second version, Mendelssohn realized, “tasted more of counterpoint than of whale-oil, seagulls and salted cod, and it ought to be the other way around.” A shorter, less cluttered third version performed in London in 1832 was called The Isles of Fingal, under which title an English firm published it as a piano duet. In Germany, however, the same arrangement was issued as Overture to the Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave). Finally the 1835 revised full score bore the simple heading Fingal’s Cave. It thus appears that the market-savvy German publisher had a hand in linking the piece to what was already a well-known natural wonder.

Even if conceived as a general musical postcard the overture broke essentially new ground: Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony had had Nature as a subject, but not a specific location—and the mysterious, remote and legendary Hebrides was a perfect Romantic setting. Despite the absence of a specific programme the brooding lower registers of the melodies, the surging swells and the military and most uncavelike brass fanfares (the fabled Fingal?), all culminating in a tempest of notes for the strings, are suggestive. And there is one detail which may be unconsciously pictorial. Mendelssohn was so seasick from the eight-mile steamer passage to the cave that he made no sketches and wrote no letters for several days: could the churning inner-voice accompaniment to the opening theme, added after the initial sketch was made, be connected.


Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No.59 in A major, “Fire”

While Haydn is primarily known today as the composer of 106 symphonies and 68 string quartets, as Kapellmeister to Prince Nicolaus Esterházy his major responsibility was selecting and composing the music for his patron’s private theatres. Nicolaus “The Magnificent” not only had a taste for diamond-studded uniforms, he had the money to build one of the most opulent palaces in Europe—Esterháza—including not only a concert room but an opera house and a marionette theatre.

In addition to opera and the 18th century equivalent of cartoons, the Prince enjoyed plays tragic and comic, presented by the foremost travelling theatre troupes of the day. One of these, the Karl Wahr Troupe, resided regularly in summer, presenting classics in translations commissioned by Nicolaus with incidental music by Haydn. In 1774 the bill included Hamlet—Haydn’s score is unfortunately lost—and Le Distrait (The Distracted Fellow) by the Baroque playwright Jean François Regnard, the music for which survives as the composer’s Symphony No.60. It also included a comedy written the previous year (in three days, on a bet): Die Feuersbrunst (The Conflagration) by Gustav Friedrich Grossmann (1746-96).

Surviving documents tell us that Symphony No.59 was written to be played between the acts of the Esterháza production of this play. There is, however, one problem with this: copies of the symphony in two Benedictine monasteries are dated 1769, some four years before the play existed. Haydn himself listed the work in his personal catalogue in conjunction with symphonies known to have been composed between 1766 and 1768 (its assigned number should really be in the high 30s). So it seems that rather than fashioning his incidental music into a symphony, as he did with No.60, Haydn here simply used his earlier A major symphony as filler. Whether he added anything else will never be known, as his own score and parts were apparently lost, ironically enough, in a fire that destroyed the Esterháza opera house in 1779.

The theatricality of the music has nonetheless been much remarked upon, with its sudden contrasts of volume and activity, and odd features like the loud horn fanfare apparently apropos of nothing in the slow movement. There remains the undocumented possibility that it was originally written for a different play; however, the above sequence of dates means that any connections between what happens in Symphony No.59 and what happens in Die Feuersbrunst are products of the imagination. And yet the popular nickname “Fire” is somehow appropriate to the opening theme’s cheery crackling violins, and to their flickering broken chords in the finale, perhaps Haydn’s reason for selecting this particular work for the purpose. Its modest scoring—only oboes and horns augment the strings—would also have been suitable for a small theatre (the horn parts are anything but modest, however, especially in the finale where, in a tripartite conversation with the oboes and strings, they are required to perform lip trills at the top of their range, valves being as yet uninvented).

Although Classical in its texture, form and galant ornamentation, the symphony retains some characteristics of the recent past: all the movements are in the key of A (albeit the second is in the minor mode), more like a Baroque suite than a Classical symphony; and the manner in which Haydn ‘spins out’ his themes into long unbroken phrases, particularly in the Andante and the Trio of the Minuet, was a technique more prized in Bach’s time. The score also calls for a harpsichord continuo with bassoon doubling the bass line, although it can be performed quite satisfactorily without it.

An interesting if not unprecedented detail of unification is the construction of the main themes of the Andante and the Minuet from the same sequence of notes.


George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): Excerpts from The Water Musick

“No man may serve two masters,” says the Book of Matthew. In 1714, however, an unlikely exception to this bit of Biblical wisdom caught up to Handel: suppose said masters are one and the same guy wearing two hats? Or worse, crowns?

Handel was in London on a ridiculously overstayed leave from his position of Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover and looked set to remain. He had worked his way into the good graces of the British monarch Queen Anne, to the point of receiving an annual stipend of £200 from the Crown, notwithstanding a law prohibiting such patronage of foreigners. Then the Good Queen died without an heir. The succession passed to none other than his other master, the Hanoverian Elector, who as King George I arrived in England in October 1714. And Handel had some explaining to do.

Just how he did it is not really known, although several conflicting stories exist. According to Handel’s first biographer Mainwaring, The Water Music suite was supposed to have effected the reconciliation between King and Kapellmeister, when George, having enjoyed immensely the music provided during a water excursion in 1715, was presented with the hitherto anonymous composer and was moved not only to pardon him his truancy but to double his royal pension. This pretty tale has now been discredited by modern musicological mythbusters. The King did have a party on the river, accompanied by Handel’s music, but it was in July 1717, long after any confrontation between them. In fact, already in 1714 George had attended Handel’s opera Rinaldo and in 1715 saw fit to pay the composer half of his outstanding German salary (the English stipend had continued uninterrupted). Some tantrum. But the King liked music and knew he would not find a better composer, let alone one who spoke German (for George refused to learn English). Stopping half of Handel’s pay presumably satisfied his pique at Handel’s transgression.

There are three contemporary accounts of the occasion for which The Water Music was composed, two in newspapers, and another in the report of the Prussian Resident in London to his government in Berlin. They differ in details—and incidentally, none mentions anything about the orchestra barge sinking, another story that still turns up occasionally—but the German official’s version seems the most reliable:

…A concert on the river…took place the day before yesterday [July 17, 1717]. About eight in the evening the King repaired to His barge [together with several notables]. Next to the King’s barge was that of the musicians, about 50 in number, who played on all kinds of instruments, to wit trumpets, horns, hautboys [oboes], bassoons, German flutes, French flutes [recorders], violins and basses, but there were no singers. The music had been composed specially by the famous Handel, a native of Halle, and His Majesty’s principal Court Composer. His Majesty approved of it so greatly that he caused it to be repeated three times in all, although each performance lasted an hour—namely twice before and once after supper. The evening [weather] was all that could be desired for the festivity, the number of barges and above all of boats filled with people desirous of hearing was beyond counting. [There was] a choice supper…at Chelsea where the King went at one in the morning. He left at three o’clock and returned to St James’ about half past four. The concert cost Baron Kilmanseck £150 for the musicians alone.

Whether Handel actually composed all of what was published as The Celebrated Water Musick for this one occasion is not known; the original score is lost, but disregarding the hodgepodge order of movements in the various editions it may be seen that there are three distinct suites included, one with horns in F major, one with trumpets and horns in D major, and the last with flutes in G minor (more intimate and suitable for dining). Handel frequently drew from his existing works when under pressure, and it is very possible that one or even two of these suites derive from other occasions, possibly even earlier royal water parties.

©Jeffrey Wall 2015