'A greener rush of waves surely never rushed into a stranger cavern – its many pillars making it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide grey sea within and without.’ Karl Klingemann’s description of Fingal’s Cave in a letter home on 10 August 1829 evokes a suitably otherworldy sense of romance, unlike the diary entry of his companion Felix Mendelssohn, which simply states: ‘horrible seasickness, Staffa’.

The brevity of his entry might suggest a lack of interest, but despite causing the seasickness, Scotland’s Hebrides islands made a lasting impression on the German composer, inspiring a piece that he would revise and refine for the next few years. In a letter from Tobermory on the island of Mull on the evening of 7 August – the day before he and Klingemann set out on their boat journey to the nearby island of Staffa, home of Fingal’s Cave – Mendelssohn explains to his father, ‘In order to make clear to you the extraordinary effect the Hebrides have had on me, the following occurred to me there.’ The letter is accompanied by a sketch of 21 bars of piano score with instrumental markings, a score that closely resembles the final revised Hebrides Overture – the work ‘inspired’ by Fingal’s Cave was, it seems, begun before the composer had actually visited the landmark.

When did Mendelssohn arrive in Scotland?

Mendelssohn and Klingemann had arrived in Scotland in July, having spent a successful concert season in London. Sir Walter Scott’s literary works were very popular in Europe – the author had inspired music by Schubert, Berlioz, Rossini, Boieldieu, Moscheles and Mendelssohn himself (the Sonate ecossaise) – and Mendelssohn’s mother was a huge fan, so visiting the country had always been part of the plan. At twilight on 26 July, Mendelssohn visited the ruined chapel of Holyrood Palace, which is where he ‘found the beginning of my Scottish symphony (No. 3).’

Thanks to the abundance of his personal letters, we can trace the development of what would become the Hebrides Overture. In correspondence sent from Wales and London in September, he refers to a new composition as ‘Hebridengeschichte’ (Hebrides tale). It takes a full year for him to mention the piece again, stating in a letter from Vienna in September 1830 that ‘During my next leisure time I will have the Hebrides Overture finished.’ For the next few months, although travelling through Graz, Vienna, Venice and Rome, his thoughts drifted back to the rocky uninhabited outcrop off the west coast of Scotland populated by puffins and a stiff breeze.

The work underwent further name changes and revisions, with Die Hebriden (No. 5) completed by December 1830 and subsequently played by the composer on the piano for Berlioz in Rome. And then came yet more changes, before Thomas Attwood conducted Overture to the Isles of Fingal at a concert in London on 14 May 1832. The reviews were mixed. According to the Athenaeum, ‘as descriptive music it was decidedly a failure,’ but the Harmonicon was much more impressed: ‘So far as music is capable of imitating, the composer has succeeded in his design; the images impressed on his mind he certainly excited, in a general way, in ours: we may even be said to have heard the sounds of winds and waves, […] fancied solitude and an all-pervading gloom.’

Mendelssohn continued to tweak and tinker, eventually conducting the Berlin premiere in January 1833. However, unlike Wagner, who later described the work as a ‘masterpiece’ of a ‘landscape-painter of the first order’, audiences at the time were immune to the charms of a brooding Scottish landscape, with reviews decrying it as ‘too serious for the concert public.’ Cue more changes until, in 1835, the score was published in Berlin as Die Fingals-Hölhe.

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Recommended recording of the Hebrides Overture

Mendelssohn in Birmingham, Volume 5 – Eight Overtures – CBSO/Edward Gardner

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Recommended recording of the Scottish Symphony

Mendelssohn In Birmingham Vol. 1 CBSO/Edward Gardner

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