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Here we have one of the most beautiful of Romantic overtures ever composed, and it was dedicated to A CAVE.


Fingal's Cave on the island of Staffa, one of the Hebrides Islands, off the west coast of Scotland.  Actual photograph.

Quite a beautiful and mysterious sea cave, too, and a beautiful seascape.  My clip art problems were easily solved when I chose this piece to cover.  Fingal's Cave is also notorious for its turbulent and dangerous waters.  As we should all know by now, turbulent waters was a favorite theme of the Romantics, sometimes irritatingly so.  I couldn't find, with my cursory search, any storm photos that could match the violence of the many Romantic period paintings of the Fingal's Cave seacoast.  I liked this painting by Thomas Moran.

More below the squiggle, including the music.

Quick note about the Thursday Classical Music series:

I haven't done one of these diaries for a while.  I want to thank, humbly, humbly, humbly, as befits the worthless beggar that I am, Dave in Northridge for what he has done in keeping the Thursday Classical Music torch going while I've been doodling around.  I'm not sure if I'll be doing many more of these diaries anytime soon, so anybody that wants to take over or collaborate to keep it going, your help would be sorely appreciated by all.  I claim no ownership to this series.  It's not generally that difficult to do as long as you're enthusiastic about your subject.  Expertise is unnecessary.  Nobody will criticize you if you do a shitty half-assed job, as I can attest, because they will be so grateful for anything you post.

I didn't think I would post this today, because my head just isn't quite in the game for this right now, but I set out to just act to myself like I was going to post one, and... tada, it worked!  Although, admittedly, I chose something easy that everybody would love.  And that has such easy to find and steal clip art to make for a pretty promotion.

To further celebrate my listening to this, I'll be drinking MacCallan's 10 year old Scotch whisky as I listen and type, a reasonably priced (even cheap) single-malt scotch.  Mmmm...  Ah, the burn.  The box it came in said that this batch would have a nose that is "Complex, with a hint of fruit and heather honey."  Well, heather honey... Who wouldn't know what that tastes like?

My dad was a salesman for McKesson.  He would be ashamed of my ignorance in matters of fine liquor.  I drank some Johnny Walker Black in front of him one time, and he became upset, launching into a long speech about how all blended Scotches were GARBAGE.  (He said this even though he sold Johnny Walker.)  He was more into bourbon, I think.  He had one of the world's biggest collections of Jim Beam collector bottles, hundreds and hundreds of Jim Beam bottles shaped like matadors and trains and little dutch girls, etc.  Sort of like beanie babies for drunken middle class snobs.

Dumbo takes a swig... Oh... nice burn...


Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn at home.

Mendelssohn composed this when he was 21.  Before you say that that was too young, the fact is, many of his greatest works were composed when he was young, even though he had a long career.  His greatest composition might be the Midsummer's Night Dream Overture, which he composed when he was all of 17 years old.  I once started to write a diary on his Midsummer's Night Dream but abandoned it when I realized just how complicated a task it would be.  Mendelssohn was brilliant, and his musical brilliance expressed itself early.  He has been compared to Mozart in this regard, but unlike Mozart, his music didn't really grow by the same leaps and bounds as he aged.  

So I'm quite pleased exploring the "early" works of Mendelssohn.  Composed in 1830, this is about contemporary with Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and Schubert's Ninth Symphony, making it early or middle period Romanticism.  The harmonic vocabulary isn't as wild as some things that were yet to come with the later Romantics.  But unlike some of those other Romantics, Mendelssohn excelled at something they must have envied: Counterpoint.  The ability to have many different musical things going on all at the same time without them stumbling over each other.  That's what I wait for when I listen to Mendelssohn.  The Fingal's Cave overture begins relatively simply, with a clear transparent main theme carried by the deeper voice of the cellos.  That relative simplicity will give way to greater complexity as the work progresses.

Dumbo takes another swig.  Ahhhh!

Being a Romantic overture, this piece is in the usual Sonata-allegro form.  So... I get to whip out my handy-dandy roadmap to classical music which I use to save time explaining things.

The Fingal's Cave Overture (or Hebrides Overture) by Felix Mendelssohn.

Exposition First Theme (0:00)

As the piece begins, the cellos in their deeper voice announce the main theme.  (In B minor).  There's tension in the air, as the violins, in the high register maintain a single tremolo note.  And then, at 0:15, the strings take control of the theme, intruding first with a swelling sound like a sea wave breaking.  There's a watery turbulence to this main theme.  And so we begin, with suppressed turbulence combined with breaking, swelling waters.  How very visual.

As the theme progresses, now carried by the strings, the complexity (counterpoint!) grows a bit, but remains controlled.  The music is sad and tinged with mystery.

Speaking of complexity... Dumbo takes another swig...  Ah the sweet burn!  Heather honey!

At 1:24, the mood lightens a bit and we start to change key, preparing us for...

Exposition: Second Theme (1:38)

The second theme is announced, like the first theme, by the cellos, with the higher strings shimmering.  We're now in the relative major key, D major.  Part of the charm of this theme is the discreet way it flexes in and out of E major and back to D.

At 2:00, the second theme is passed to the strings, but they add some of that oceanic wave-like swelling, the way the volume peaks on the high notes and then settles back.

At 2:35, a fragment of the first theme returns, signaling a new section coming...  And...

Exposition: Codetta (or third theme) (2:42)

The music now asserts itself aggressively.  (Still in D major).  The drums and brass come in, woohoo!  This codetta theme is a more assertive major key version of the first theme.  There's also a kind of "fanfare" quality to it.  Mendelssohn effectively announces, "That's that for the exposition.  Major stuff soon to come."  

Development Section (3:23)

The fanfare of the trumpets trails off, and the mysterious murmurs of the first theme try to make a comeback.  This calling and answering, the trumpets with their piece of the fanfare, the cellos with a piece of the first theme.  The violins shimmering with high tremolo notes.  With a series of several key changes in quick succession, Mendelssohn creates a sense of tense expectation.

At 3:56, the woodwinds enter with the brief appearance of a new fragment, like a new character in the drama.  Da. Duh. Dada, daduh...  It's a bit ominous and will recur.

But now the mood lightens a bit.  At 4:18, we get a short variation of the second theme.  At 4:35, a variation on the first theme.  At 5:11, another variation on the first theme, but now it gallops like a horse.  

The tension rises.  We head right into the climax of the development, which comes at 5:42.  

Recapitulation First Theme (6:09)

... And the first theme returns, back in the home key of B minor, back in the cellos again.  However, it has "learned a lesson along the way," so to speak, so Mendelssohn doesn't just regurgitate it to us.

Recapitulation Second Theme (6:59)

The second theme returns, played now by the woodwinds.  Now it has been calmed, made tranquil as a lullabye, without all that "swelling of the waves."

Recapitulation Coda (7:36)

And now begins a long, dramatic coda.  The newfound tranquility of the second theme evaporates and we're back in busy, anxious water sounds.  That "new character" fragment we heard at 3:56 returns, as well.  Nothing is wasted here, no leftover spare parts in this overture!  It becomes agitated, and soon it is swelling.  

I told you previously that Mendelssohn was a master of counterpoint, didn't I?  Get ready for the best part of the ride.  21 years old, this guy.  If you feel like you know this piece already because you've heard it in cartoons and don't need to listen to it again... this is the good stuff coming.

The first theme, or something like it, returns now, (7:53) but like a gale force hurricane, both major and minor at times, both.  The drums are back, pounding atop it, creating a growing, powerful driving rhythm, driving the overture to its climax.

At 9:59, the violence begins to gradually recede.  After a few final bullying beats of the drum, the overture ends with the solo flute sadly playing part of the first theme.

Next week:

I don't know.  I have drafts for two or three diaries, but they're not classical music diaries.  I've been brainstorming about a new series that would be a singing cowboy soap opera parody with some original songs and maybe hand-drawn cartoons.  But that's not part of the Thursday Classical Music series.  My head's not totally in the classical music thing right now.  I have a number of ideas of wish list classical pieces I'd like to diary some day, but I'm not all there for it right now.

I'm willing to help out as best I can, but I'd appreciate it if somebody else would take up the torch.  Let us know what you think in comments.

Time for another swig.  Oh, the sweet burn!

Originally posted to Dumbo on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 09:31 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA, An Ear for Music, and Community Spotlight.

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