Did you know that April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of the passing of William Shakespeare? Composers throughout history have drawn from Shakespeare’s work, musically setting many of his plays. This month, Clef Notes will explore some of these settings. Though there’s not time in one month to explore this topic to the fullest, this should give you a good highlight. Since we just looked at musical settings of Romeo and Juliet this past February, we will skip over that play this month.
This week, let’s begin by looking at a couple composers who musically set A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Did you know that Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) wrote his famous Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was just 17 years old? Growing up in a well-to-do family, young Mendelssohn was exposed to music early on and given excellent musical instruction from Carl Friedrich Zelter. His parents often hosted performances in their own home, inviting society’s rich and famous to attend. It was at one of these in-home performances that Mendelssohn first performed his overture, playing it as a piano duet with his sister, Fanny. Shortly thereafter, he orchestrated the work and it became quite successful.
Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was conceived as a concert overture, not originally intended to accompany the play. It is likely that Mendelssohn first encountered Shakespeare as it was read aloud or acted out at some of the performances his parents held in their home.
Over a decade after the completion of his overture, Mendelssohn was approached by the King of Prussia who desired incidental music for a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was at this time that the remaining music came to be. You can listen below. Can you hear love, adventure, fairies, and even a donkey in this setting?