Friday, March 28, 2014

Mendelssohn - The Hebrides Overture (Fingal's Cave)

The Hebrides are made up of a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland, some of which have a long history of human habitation that goes back to 6500 BCE. The islands have been further divided into two areas; the Outer Hebrides and the Inner Hebrides.  Felix Mendelssohn toured the area in 1829 and while in the Inner Hebrides group he visited the uninhabited island of Staffa where the famous tourist attraction Fingal's Cave is located.  Staffa is noted for its hexagonal columns of basalt that form the island and the opening to the cave. The cave has a naturally formed arched ceiling and is known for its bizarre echoing effects caused by the waves of the ocean.  The cave has been known for centuries, but came to be called Fingal's Cave after the hero of an 18th-century epic poem by James McPherson.

Fingal's Cave
Mendelssohn was inspired by the sounds of the echoing waves in the cave and wrote down his first sketches for the overture shortly after he visited the cave and sent them in a letter to his sister Fanny. Mendelssohn completed the overture in 1830 and originally called it The Lonely Island, but he revised the score in 1832 and renamed it The Hebrides. The overture was first performed in London in 1832.

The overture begins with a theme that Warner Brothers cartoon aficionados will recognize, for it was used in their cartoon of 1943 titled 'Inki and The Myna Bird', a  cartoon that has not withstood the test of time because of its racial political incorrectness. There is a Myna bird that appears throughout the cartoon and every time it does, this theme accompanies it. It wasn't the first time Warner Brothers, Walt Disney and other animators used parts of classical music pieces for a cartoon. If nothing else, the music was free to use as it was in the public domain.


This first theme was inspired by Mendelssohn's visit to the cave, the sketch he sent to his sister Fanny. It is in B minor and begins in the low pitched instruments of the orchestra and swells up into the higher pitched instruments in imitation of the swells and waves of the sea.  The second theme is in a major key and also begins with the low pitched instruments and is more expansive in nature. These two themes comprise the basic elements of the overture. Mendelssohn transforms them and modifies them in various ways as he works towards the coda which develops the opening theme until a climax is reached. The clarinet states the first theme once more in muted dynamics, the flute echoes the clarinet in a short fragment and the work ends.

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