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A guide to Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal's Cave

You've probably heard this piece, but when and why did Felix Mendelssohn write it? And does it tell a story? Here is everything you need to know about the Hebrides Overture (or is it Fingal's Cave?)

Published: August 26, 2022 at 1:29 pm
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Let's clear this up right now: what is this piece actually called?

When Felix Mendelssohn completed a draft of the work in 1830 he called it Die einsame Insel or The Lonely Isle. Two years later he renamed it Die Hebriden (The Hebrides). But here's the thing: In 1834 Breifkopf & Härtel published the the orchestral parts as Die Hebriden but the score as Fingals Höhle'(Fingal’s Cave) - and the confusion stuck. In the UK, we generally refer to it as The Hebrides. But it's best just to pick a side and run with it. Probably.

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Was it actually inspired by a trip to Fingal's Cave?

Yes. Mendelssohn and his friend Karl Klingemann travelled to England in 1829, and then went on to Scotland, where the composer painted and sketched his way around the country. As part of the trip, he travelled to the Hebrides Islands off the west Coast and visited the island of Staffa - known for its puffins and its atmospheric cave. With its echoing acoustics, which emphasised the sound of rumbling waves, Fingal's Cave made a deep impression on Mendelssohn, who later sent his sister Fanny a postcard, with the work's opening theme, that read: 'In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.'

Does it tell a story?

Although it is a piece of programme music, it doesn't tell a specific story. Rather, Mendelssohn's aim was to set a scene: to capture the swell and feel of the Atlantic, and the sound of waves crashing against rocks.

If it's an overture, where's the rest of the opera?

Aha. So, although it is an overture, it's a concert overture, meaning that it's a standalone work with no opera attached to it. Which is perhaps a shame: as a potential curtain-raiser for an opera, it's a pretty promising one.

How easy was it to write?

Actually, not very easy at all. Despite his initial flash of inspiration, Mendelssohn spent the next three years wrestling with his score, completing at least two versions of it in the meantime. In 1832 he wrote to his sister that he still did not consider it finished: 'The middle part, forte in D major, is very stupid, and savours more of counterpoint than of oil and seagulls and dead fish.'

When was it finally ready then?

The revised version - in which the 'very stupid' middle section had been replaced - was ready for its first performance in London at the Philharmonic Society in May 1832.

In a nutshell, can you guide me through the music?

There are two key themes in this overture, the first - played initially by the violas, cellos and bassoons - being the one that Mendelssohn sent to his sister Fanny. Dark and majestic, it conjures up the grandeur of the cave, and is developed in several ways that pay homage to the seascape. The second theme, meanwhile, is more lyrical, and captures the rolling of the waves. It builds to a huge climax, whereupon the material becomes a lot more turbulent. But the storm abates, and the music ends with a sense of tranquility.

One random fact?

Mendelssohn, apparently was very seasick on his trip to Fingal's Cave. His friend Klingemann wrote that he got 'along better with the sea as an artist than as a human being with a stomach.'

Recommended recordings?

Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the London Symphony Orchestra

Joseph Swensen with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

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Edward Gardner with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Authors

Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.

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