One of the most grown-up review sites around
One of the most grown-up review sites around

Search MusicWeb Here


International mailing

Up to 40% off

  Founder: Len Mullenger

Mendelssohn (1809-47) - Overture: Ruy Blas

It's always nice to discover a morsel of mere mortal lurking within a great composer, because then we mere mortals can better relate to his humanity. Mendelssohn, it seems, was just as prone as anyone to getting nettled. In 1839, the Leipzig Theatrical Pension Fund commissioned this overture and a song for a performance in Germany of Victor Hugo's play of 1838. Feeling a bit lazy (more mortality!), he wrote the song but couldn't really be bothered with the overture. The Fund wrote to express their thanks for the song, regretting that he had not managed to produce the overture, hoping that he might be able to do so the next year after longer notice. Whether it was a deliberate diplomatic ploy by the Fund is open to conjecture, but it had what can be construed as the desired effect: Mendelssohn was duly nettled by the implication that he wasn't up to it, and rattled off the overture in a mere three days. Moreover, according to W. A. Chislett, he “succeeded admirably in depicting in music the mixture of chicanery, burning ambition and love, which are the principal ingredients of Hugo’s drama”. 

As one who's never harboured a “burning ambition” to study Hugo, I can't argue, but I can easily imagine “burning ambition” in the forbidding wind declamation that opens the overture, as I can “chicanery” in the nervous twitching of the first subject (presaged in the introduction) and “love” in the mellifluous tones of the second. Two things in particular are striking. Firstly, that “declamation” returns twice, not (as you might expect) to announce the development and recapitulation, but to bridge between the two subjects, deliberately blurring the outline of the sonata-form. Secondly, the two subjects, which are already similarly structured, tend to “converge”, a further blurring giving us not so much a “mixture”, but more a “compound”, and a very potent chemistry: the refinement of Mendelssohn steering dangerously close to the turbulent waters of Berlioz.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


Conditions for use apply. Details here
Copyright in these notes is retained by the author without whose prior written permission they may not be used, reproduced, or kept in any form of data storage system. Permission for use will generally be granted on application, free of charge subject to the conditions that (a) the author is duly credited, and (b) a donation is made to a charity of the author's choice.

Return to: Music on the Web