Obscure & Uncommon Classical Christmas Music


Tired of the usual Christmas carols on the radio? Have you heard Sleigh Ride or Winter Wonderland one too many times this season? Then check out our list of uncommon classical Christmas music including rare choral pieces and obscure symphonic compositions.

Past Three O’Clock

Past Three O’Clock is loosely based on the traditional cry of the city night watchman. It was written by George Ratcliffe Woodward and published in 1924. Although it has been recorded by a number of choirs including the Choir of King’s College and Cambridge, it doesn’t typically make the cut among popular music artists.




In Terra Pax – Gerald Finzi

In Terra Pax was one of the last pieces British composer Gerald Finzi wrote. It was composed in 1954 and was set to the words of a poem entitled “Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913” by Robert Bridges. Finzi explained that the work is the Nativity story becoming a vision seen by “a wanderer on a dark and frosty Christmas Eve in our own familiar landscape”. Like his other works, it has hints of inspiration from other British composers like Elgar and Vaughan Williams.




Riu Riu Chiu

Although it has crossed into some popular music recordings, Riu Riu Chiu remains relatively unknown by most. Sometimes attributed to Mateo Flecha the Elder who died in 1553, the basic theme of the song is the nativity of Christ and the immaculate Conception. The words “ríu ríu chíu” are nonsense syllables that represent the call of the kingfisher.




Christmas Overture – Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a British composer of African descent. His father was a Sierra Leone Creole physician. His mother, an Englishwoman. He showed promise at an early age as a violinist and then as a composer. He became fairly well-known in England as well as in the US where he was dubbed the “African Mahler”. His Christmas Overture was derived from The Forest of Wild Thyme and arranged by Sydney Barnes after Coleridge-Taylor’s death. In it, you’ll hear familiar tunes like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “Good King Wenceslaus”, and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”.




Gaudete

Another medieval carol, Gaudete or Gaudete, Christus est natus is a sacred Christmas song that was published in 1582. When it was published, no music was given for the verses, but it is typically sung to a tune that comes from older liturgical books. The title translates as “Rejoice, rejoice! Christ has born”.




Carol Symphony – Victor Hely-Hutchinson

Victor Hely-Hutchinson was a British composer born in Cape Town, Cape Colony (now South Africa). His best known work is his Carol Symphony – a four movement work that incorporates several well-known Christmas carols. The first movement is based on O Come All Ye Faithful. The second is a scherzo on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. The third is a slow movement loosely based on both the Coventry Carol and The First Noel. And the finale incorporates Here We Come A-Wassailing and O Come All Ye Faithful again.




Sleigh Ride (Winter Night) – Frederick Delius

Another English composer, Delius is best known for lyrical music influenced by other European composers like Edvard Grieg and Richard Wagner as well as music he heard while in America. His Winter Night is an atmospheric portrayal of a moonlit, snowy sleigh ride complete with sleigh bells.




Wassail Song – Ralph Vaughan Williams

The “Wassail Song” is part of Vaughan Williams’ Five English Folk Songs, a transcription of melodies from England’s vast vocal tradition of folk music. It was written in 1913 with cheer and charm to end the collection of five songs.




Santa Claus Symphony – William Henry Fry

William Henry Fry holds the distinction of being the first composer born in the United States to write for a large symphony orchestra. His Santa Claus Symphony was written in 1853 and was very well received by audiences. It may be the first orchestral use of the saxophone which was invented just barely a decade before.


Handel’s “Messiah” FAQs



Handel's MessiahHandel’s “Messiah” is one of the most widely played pieces during the Christmas season and certainly the most popular oratorio (a musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists). It’s also, however, the subject of a wide variety of myths, misconceptions, and questions ranging from things as simple as its title to why we stand during the famous “Hallelujah” chorus.

Let’s take a moment to explore answers to these key frequently asked questions about “Messiah”.

What is Handel’s Messiah?

Handel’s “Messiah” is a large work for orchestra, choir, and solo singers called an oratorio. It was composed in 1741 and is typically performed around Christmas. The most famous part is the “Hallelujah” chorus which has been used in popular culture in movies, cartoons, and even commercials. While many people refer to it as “The Messiah”, its official name is just “Messiah”.

What is the story of Handel’s Messiah?

It doesn’t tell story. Instead, the libretto, written by Charles Jennens, is a series of contemplations on the Christian theme of redemption through the life of Christ. The work is in 3 parts: the first part foretells Jesus’ birth and the Christmas story, the second part leads up to and includes the crucifixion, and the third part talks about the spread of Christianity and eternal life. Interestingly, despite its Christian message, most of the text is from the Old Testament.

Where was Handel’s Messiah first performed?

Contrary to myths about London, it was actually first performed on April 13, 1742 in Dublin, Ireland as a charity concert benefiting three charities: prisoners’ debt relief, the Mercers Hospital and the Charitable Infirmary. Handel sought and was given permission from St. Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals to use their choirs and he even had his own organ shipped to Ireland for the performance. To ensure that the audience would be the largest possible, gentlemen were asked to remove their swords and women were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses. The takings from the concert were around £400 and each charity received about £127 which secured the release of 142 indebted prisoners.

Why do you stand for Handel’s Messiah?

Audiences typically stand only during the “Hallelujah” chorus. The reason for this has its origins in a legend that may or may not be true. The often repeated story is that King George II was so moved by the chorus during the London premiere that he rose to his feet. Because of protocol, the audience in attendance also stood and thus the tradition was born. However, many experts agree that there is no evidence that King George II was even in attendance at the premiere. Newspapers of the time did not mention his attendance and it would be unlikely they would leave out the detail of a royal presence. The first written documentation of this story was a letter written 37 years after the London premiere. The London premiere also received a rather cool reception unlike the Dublin premiere which was a hit. All of this has led to numerous debates and countless passive-aggressive battles between sitters and standers.

Why is Handel’s Messiah so popular at Christmas?

The premiere in Dublin was held in April and Handel himself associated “Messiah” with Lent and Easter. In fact, only one-third of the piece deals with Jesus’ birth and the Christmas story. So why is a piece that’s really an Easter work so popular during Christmas? Laurence Cummings, conductor of the London Handel Orchestra, once told Smithsonian Magazine that the custom may have come out of necessity stating that while there is so much fine Easter music like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, there is little great sacral music written for Christmas. Regardless of the reason, “Messiah” has been a regular December staple since the 19th century, especially in the US.

How long is Handel’s Messiah?

Handel wrote the original version of “Messiah” in three to four weeks. Some accounts estimate just 24 days. We say “original version” because Handel rewrote parts to better meet the abilities of specific soloists and depending on availability of instruments. In 1789, Mozart re-orchestrated it to give it a more modern sound.

The time it took Handel to write the work is amazingly short when you consider the score is 259 pages. NPR music commentator Miles Hoffman estimated that there are roughly a quarter of a million notes in it which means Handel had to keep a continuous pace writing 15 notes per minute.

Typical performances of the entire “Messiah” are usually around 2 1/2 to 3 hours long.

Die Fledermaus? At A Halloween Concert?



If you’re familiar with the famous waltzes of Johann Strauss II (think “The Blue Danube”), you might be asking yourself, why on earth are we performing the overture from Die Fledermaus for a Halloween concert? It’s not creepy or spooky or scary. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – filled with sweet melodies and bouncy rhythms that act as a preview of the rest of the operetta which is filled with humorous plot twists, cases of mistaken identity, and a final chorus in honor of champagne.

Despite all that, there are 3 great reasons to perform the Die Fledermaus Overture for Halloween:

1. The opera is about a masquerade: The operetta (a term used to describe a short opera with a light or humorous theme) is centered around a masquerade ball. And what’s more Halloween than dressing up in costumes?

2. The title means “The Bat”: Die Fledermaus is German for “the bat”. The operetta’s main character, Eisenstein, left his friend Dr. Falke abandoned and drunk on the street. Dr. Falke was dressed in a bat costume and from that point on he took on the nickname of “Dr. Bat”. Interestingly, “fledermaus” does not translate to “flying mouse”. “Fleder” is an old form of “flattern” which means “flutter”. So “fledermaus” is “fluttermouse”.

3. It’s fun!: Who says Halloween music has to be creepy? After all, it is meant to be a fun holiday and what’s more fun than clapping or swaying along with the famous waltz melody of this overture once called the “pièce de resistance” of the operetta by a Viennese critic. In fact it was so well-received at its premiere that it was interrupted several times by applause.

Be sure to join us on October 27, 2017 and hear us perform this and other Halloween music at “Sounds of the Deep”

Parker Symphony Halloween 2017 Concert - Die Fledermaus


Top 12 Fast Classical Music Pieces


Classical music detractors might have you believe that the genre is made up of slow and boring tunes that will put you to sleep. While, sure, there are a fair number of slower tempo pieces including soft lullabies and peaceful preludes, there are also notable quick and lively selections perfect for energizing your workout, keeping you awake, and more. Here is our top 12 list of fast classical music pieces, many of which have become famous through their use in cartoons, TV ads, and more.

Glinka – Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture

The best-known music from Glinka’s opera is this overture, often described as rollicking and wickedly fast.

Chopin – Minute Waltz

The tempo marking of Chopin’s famous “Waltz in D-flat major” is molto vivace (or very lively). Its nickname, the “Minute” was actually intended to describe the piece as a “small” or “miniature” waltz. It was not intended to be played in under a minute. It’s still pretty fast, though.

Vivaldi – “Summer” from The Four Seasons

“The Four Seasons” is the best known of Vivaldi’s works and the Presto movement of Summer is definitely the fastest portion. This portion is intended to evoke images of a storm complete with thunder and hail.

Smetana – “Dance of the Comedians” from The Bartered Bride

The Dance of the Comedians is from Czech composer Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride”. You may recognize it though from the Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote cartoon “Fast and Furry-ous”.

Rimsky Korsakov – Flight of the Bumblebee

“Flight of the Bumblebee” was written as a small orchestral interlude for the opera “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” – music to entertain between acts. Today, it is far more famous as a standalone piece.

Popper – Dance of the Elves

Popper was both a cellist and a composer. His “Elfentanz” (Dance of the Elves) was written along with other short showpieces to highlight the cello’s incredible range and unique sound.

Khachaturian – Sabre Dance

The “Sabre Dance” is by far Khachaturian’s most recognizable work. It’s actually a movement in the final act of his ballet “Gayane”, but it has since been used in movies and even by ice skaters as music for their routines.

Liszt – Gnomenreigen

Part of Liszt’s “Two Concert Etudes”, Gnomenreigen (Dance of the Gnomes) is well-known among pianists for its technical difficulty and fast passages.

Vivaldi – Concerto for 2 Cellos in G Minor

Vivaldi only left one “double” concerto for cellos, but the cadenza-like opening is highly charged and often played very fast.

Paganini – Caprice No 5

You don’t have to search anywhere but Wikipedia to read why this made the list. It’s described as being “known for its incredible speed and extremely high technical difficulty”.

Corelli – Badinerie

Badinerie in French literally means jesting. In music, it generally refers to the quick, light movement in a suite. This selection by Corelli is part of his “Sarabande, Gigue, and Badinerie Suite for Strings”.

Barber – 3rd movement from his Violin Concerto

Barber’s violin concerto has three movements and it’s the last which stands out for its fast tempo. It was designed to show off the more brilliant and virtuosic nature of the violin.

 

The Story of Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral”


Sunken Church in TyrolIn 1909 and 1910, Claude Debussy wrote a series of 12 preludes for solo piano. Among them is the mysteriously titled, “La Cathédrale engloutie” which translates to The Submerged (or The Sunken) Cathedral. A quintessential example of musical impressionism, the piece depicts the rise of a cathedral from the water and subsequent return to the depths – complete with bells chiming, priests chanting, and organ playing.

While you may know the piece, did you know that it’s based on a real legend? The ancient Breton legend of Ys.

Legend of Ys

Ys was a mythical city said to have been on the coast of Brittany (Northwest France) in the Bay of Douarnenez. It was famous throughout the region for its beautiful gardens and buildings. Run by a king named Gradlon (or Gralon) who lived in a palace of marble, cedar, and gold, it was rich in commerce and the arts. It was also very vulnerable to flooding, being situated below sea level. To protect the city, a huge dike was built around it with a single gate that opened for ships during low tide.

The exact reason why Ys became submerged in the sea varies. There are many different versions of the legend. Most depict Gradlon as a pious, devoted king and father who was the holder of the only key to the city gate. His daughter, Dahut, on the other hand is usually described as a sinful, deceitful princess. In some versions, Princess Dahut holds a secret banquet for her lover and the two, drunk with wine, steal the key from her father and open the gates, letting the waters flood in. Another version says that Dahut steals the key to let her secret lover in to the city during the night, mistakenly flooding the city.

King Gradlon of Ys Statue in QuimperThere are also versions that involve the fight between Christianity and paganism, suggesting the cause of the city’s demise was due to everything from excessive luxury to sin and worship of pagan gods to Dahut taking the devil himself as her lover. In these versions, King Gradlon was said to have converted to Christianity. St Gwénnolé foretold of the city’s downfall and warned the king to flee. He agreed to do so, but devoted father as he was, he tried to save his daughter. A voice called out to throw his sinful daughter into the sea or he would not escape the waters that were about to overtake him. He does so and she turns into a mermaid.

All versions agree that Dahut does not escape her fate. Ys becomes submerged in the sea. King Gradlon escapes and takes refuge in Quimper which becomes the new capital. Interestingly, a statue of Gradlon still stands between the spires of the Cathedral of Saint Corentin in Quimper.

Breton folklore asserts that the bells of the churches of Ys can still be heard below the waters of the Bay of Douarnenez when it is calm, hence the inspiration for Debussy’s prelude.

A Pun For An Ending

Another related legend says that when Paris is swallowed, the city of Ys will rise again. Par-is means “like Ys” in Breton.

Debussy’s Depiction

The opening of the piece gently brings in the cathedral, out of the water, with a melody that resembles waves. Debussy wrote in Peu à peu sortant de la brume (Emerging from the fog little by little). Then after a section marked Augmentez progressivement (Slowly growing), the cathedral emerges and the grand organ is heard with a powerful fortissimo. This is the loudest part of the piece. The cathedral then sinks back down into the ocean and the organ is heard once more, but this time from under water. Finally, it is out of sight and only the bells are heard at a distant pianissimo.

Hear It For Yourself!

Join us on October 27, 2017 and hear us perform Stokowski’s arrangement of Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie along with other pieces perfect for the Halloween season. Tickets for “Sounds of the Deep” are available now.

 

What Is A Pops Orchestra?


Image courtesy of http://www.northshorepops.org/If you’ve attended orchestral performances or listened to classical music for any length of time, you’ve probably seen the terms “philharmonic”, “symphony”, and “chamber” in the names of various organizations. “Pops” is another common term (as in the Boston Pops or the Denver Pops Orchestra). The first three are used to denote different sized groups. A chamber orchestra is the smallest while “symphony” and “philharmonic” typically refer to groups large enough to play the great symphonies. “Philharmonic” is also a proper name used to distinguish orchestras in the same city.

“Pops” is another story. It refers to the type of music played by the group.

What is a pops orchestra?

Simply put, it is an orchestra that plays popular music as well as well-known classical works. They are groups that perform lighter classics, American favorites, popular music, show tunes, and film music. Many feel they are an alternative to the “highbrow” orchestras since they aren’t afraid to let their hair down a little. Of course, we here at the Parker Symphony aren’t afraid to let our hair down at times even though we don’t have the “pops” moniker.

Examples of pops orchestras

Examples include the Boston Pops Orchestra and the Denver Pops Orchestra (as mentioned before) as well as the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, the American Pops Orchestra, and the Cleveland Pops Orchestra. These groups tend to have friendly relationships with the traditional professional orchestra in their city, often sharing members (although typically not the first chair players).

What music does a pops orchestra perform?

On the classical side, you may hear Strauss waltzes and polkas, overtures from composers like Rossini, Mozart, and von Suppé, and a movement or two from a famous Beethoven or Mozart symphony. On the popular side, you might hear the music of an iconic band like The Beatles, the music from a hit Broadway show like Hamilton, and movie themes from composers like John Williams, James Horner, Hans Zimmer, and Thomas Newman.

Pops Orchestras vs. Pops Concerts

Interestingly, critics of pops orchestras suggest that the fact that they are separate organizations has removed some of these more famous classics from traditional symphony orchestras’ repertoire which has hurt attendance. They tend to “remove some music whose principal reason for existence is pure entertainment”.

To answer this, traditional orchestras have been putting on more programs in the style of pops orchestras. Philharmonic orchestras and symphony orchestras have always occasionally played a pops concert here or there, but more recently, these organizations have found success in themed concerts and even playing a film score alongside the movie.

Even we here at the Parker Symphony perform pops concerts to help draw in new and different audiences. For example, our 2016 “PSO Goes To The Movies” concert included single movements from symphonies and short classics featured in films.

The Future Of Pops

Pops orchestras and concerts will probably always have a place. After all, to quote the New York Philharmonic’s vice president of artistic planning, “Not every subscription concert, week in and week out, should be so deadly serious.” Whether pops plays more or less of a role in the future is hard to say. For now, those who want to hear serious performances, there are always programs available featuring masterful concertos, full symphonies, and choral works. For those who are looking for lighter entertainment, check out the various pops orchestras and concerts in your area.


What Is A Concerto Grosso?

Baroque Instruments

If you’ve ever listened to baroque music (think Vivaldi, Corelli, Handel, etc.), you’ve probably seen the term Concerto Grosso and wondered, “What is that?” Well, as you can probably guess, it does not mean the concerto is gross.

Concerto grosso (or the plural concerti grossi) is Italian for “big concerto”. Unlike a solo concerto where a single solo instrument plays the melody line and is accompanied by the orchestra, in a concerto grosso, a small group of soloists passes the melody between themselves and the orchestra or a small ensemble.

The group of soloists (or soli, concertino, or principale) was often made up of two violins, a bass melody instrument such as a cello, and a harmony instrument such as a harpsichord. Wind instruments were also common. The orchestra (or tutti or ripieno) was usually a string orchestra or a small ensemble of strings, often with a few woodwinds or brass added.

Concerti grossi were very common in the Baroque era (1600-1750). Right around 1750 (just after Handel composed his Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 with 12 different concerti), the solo concerto became the more popular musical form and the concerto grosso all but disappeared. Interestingly, a few 20th century composers like Igor Stravinsky, Philip Glass, and Henry Cowell have revived the form.

Listen to Corelli’s Concerto Grosso op. 6 no. 8 below and see if you can spot the concertino vs. the ripieno.

 

10 Badass Pieces Of Classical Music


We’ve all heard it. The jokes about classical music putting people to sleep. Sure, some pieces are great for studying, meditation, weddings, and solemn events, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this genre. If all classical music were soft, quiet, and relaxing, orchestra life would be pretty boring especially for the percussion and brass sections. Forte would be a rare dynamic. Fortissimo an impossibility. And audiences would be very hard to come by – unless, of course, they were trying to catch some zzz’s.

So why do people say that about classical music? Maybe it’s because they just haven’t heard the more rousing pieces. Maybe they only remember the softer side of classical because that’s all they hear at weddings. Regardless of the reason, here’s a list of badass classical music that shatters the stereotype.


  • Orff – Carmina Burana / “O Fortuna”

  • Holst – The Planets, Mars

  • Verdi – Requiem “Dies Irae”

  • Wagner – Ride of the Valkyries

  • Vivaldi – The Four Seasons: Summer Mvt. 3 Presto

  • Bizet – Carmen Overture / Les Toreadors

  • Mussorgsky – Night on Bald Mountain

  • Verdi – Il Trovatore / “Anvil Chorus”

  • Khachaturian – Sabre Dance

  • Strauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra, Prelude

 

Honorable Mentions (in case you want to check out more):

  • Tchaikovsky – 1812 Overture
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 5, Mvt 4
  • Bruckner – Symphony No 1, Mvt 3
  • Grieg – In The Hall Of The Mountain King
  • Dvorak – Symphony No 9, Mvt 4
  • Mozart – Requiem in D minor, Dies Irae
  • Bizet – L’Arlésienne Suite No 2, Mvt 4 (Farandole)
  • Saint-Saëns – Symphony No 3, Mvt 3 and 4
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 9, Mvt 4
  • Glinka – Overture from Ruslan and Ludmilla
  • Holst – The Planets, Jupiter
  • Mozart – Symphony No 25, Mvt 1
  • Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D minor
  • Smyth – The Wreckers (Overture)

 

The Moldau – Patriotic and Inspiring

 

Vltava River - The MoldauVltava, better known by its German name, Die Moldau (or The Moldau), is a symphonic poem that is patriotic in every sense of the word. It is one of six movements of a larger work called Má vlast which means “My Homeland” or “My Country”. In it, Czech composer Smetana combined nationalistic melodies with musical depictions of the Bohemian countryside, history, and legends. When performed, you can hear the land come alive as the music paints the scene of a proud and culturally-rich region of Europe.

The Moldau specifically was intended to evoke the sounds of one of Bohemia’s great rivers – the Vltava river. The “Moldau” name comes from the German name for the source of the river in the Bohemian mountains. In Smetana’s own words:

The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe.

The piece begins with the flutes playing a flowing tune reminiscent of two rippling springs. Violin pizzicato evokes raindrops. Soon, clarinets begin to play and continue the theme. Then one of Smetana’s most famous melodies emerges. It is an adaptation of a piece called La Mantovana and is arguably one of the most strikingly beautiful parts of the entire work. In fact, it has inspired other pieces, most notably the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. Later on, a horn melody representing jubilant hunters and a polka rhythm that depicts a wedding scene can be heard before the famous melody returns. The piece ends with a regal hymn that fades away until the final two loud notes.

The Moldau was written in the 1870’s, a time when Bohemians had a renewed interest in freedom from German culture. They embraced it and the rest of Má vlast as a sort of patriotic symphonic national anthem. Research suggests this was Smetana’s intent as well. Today, it has achieved the most success of all of the six movements.

Hear the Parker Symphony Orchestra perform The Moldau and other nature-inspired works on May 5, 2017.

 

9 Interesting Facts About Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides”

 

When thinking of nature-inspired classical music, pieces inspired by flowers, rivers, trees, birds, seasons, and beautiful scenery definitely fit the bill. You may think of everything from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”. But how about a piece about a cave?

Yes, there is at least one classical piece about a cave and it’s a mysterious, dramatic, and beautifully melodic work. It’s everything you’d expect from a piece about a stunning yet lonely cave surrounded by the ocean. It’s Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and you can hear it performed by the Parker Symphony Orchestra live on May 5.

Learn more about this fascinating overture. Here are 9 interesting facts you should know about The Hebrides.

1. It has had several titles. When Mendelssohn completed the work in 1830, it was originally titled Die einsame Insel or The Lonely Island. He revised the score 2 years later and, at that time, renamed the work Die Hebriden (The Hebrides). It was published in 1833 with the “Hebrides” title on various orchestral parts and Fingal’s Cave on the score.

2. It was inspired by a trip to the real cave. Mendelssohn visited England in 1829 and after touring the country, proceeded to Scotland. He and his friend, Karl Klingemann, traveled to the Hebrides Island off the west coast of Scotland and later to Fingal’s Cave, a real cave on the island of Staffa. The sea cave is known for its natural acoustics which project the rumbling of the waves inside for miles. Mendelssohn tried to capture the phenomenon in his overture. The cave is also known for its hexagonal basalt columns similar to those you can find at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

3. It is not a traditional overture. Many overtures serve as the opening to an opera or ballet, but The Hebrides represents a new type of overture called the “concert overture”, intended to stand as a complete work. Also, unlike some pieces, it does not tell a story, but rather depicts a mood and “sets a scene”. That also makes it an early example of a musical tone poem.

4. Mendelssohn was seasick on his trip to Fingal’s Cave. The composer and his friend took a skiff to Staffa to view the cave and sat at the mouth of the awe-inspiring formation. Mendelssohn was terribly seasick during the trip, but enjoyed it nonetheless. His friend, Klingemann, wrote that he got “along better with the sea as an artist than as a human being with a stomach.”

5. The overture didn’t come easily. Mendelssohn apparently came up with the opening phrase of the overture while on his tour of Scotland. He sent it home on a postcard with a note to his sister Fanny 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.” Unfortunately, despite this stroke of genius, he completed at least 2 versions of the piece and wrote to his sister that he was still wrestling with it in 1832 because it did not savor enough of “oil and seagulls and dead fish”.

6. It was dedicated to King Frederick William IV of Prussia. He was the Crown Prince of Prussia at the time and Mendelssohn’s patron.

7. The final autograph manuscript still exists. It is held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Its 34 pages are full of deletions and revisions in a fine calligraphy that was characteristic of Mendelssohn.

8. It consists of two distinct themes. The opening notes state the theme Mendelssohn conceived while visiting the cave and is played by violas, cellos, and bassoons. It sets an initial scene of haunting solitude until the violins take over and the lower voices begin a pattern of sixteenth notes that represent the ebb and flow of the sea. The second theme is a soaring melody meant to convey the drama of the scene. It was once called “the greatest melody Mendelssohn ever wrote” by musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey. There are also recognizable crescendos and crashes that represent the often stormy tides of the area.

9. A theory claims that first draft was completed on a very important cave-related date. Scottish writer Iain Thornber pointed out that the initial draft of The Hebrides was completed on the only day of the year the cave is illuminated by the sun. The cave is only fully illuminated when the sun lies 5.6 degrees above the horizon which is generally on or about December 16. Mendelssohn completed the draft on December 16, 1830. Either this was on purpose or it’s a big coincidence.

Hear the Parker Symphony Orchestra perform The Hebrides and other nature-inspired works on May 5, 2017.