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Work

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Composer

Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, cantata for chorus and orchestra, Op.60   

Performances: 4
Tracks: 25
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Musicology:
  • Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, cantata for chorus and orchestra, Op.60
    Year: 1832
    Genre: Cantata
    Pr. Instruments: Chorus/Choir & Orchestra
    • 1.Overture: Allegro con fuoco
    • 2.Es lacht der Mai!
    • 3.Könnt ihr so verwegen handeln?
    • 4.Opfer heut' zu bringen scheut
    • 5.Verteilt euch hier
    • 6.Diese dumpfen Pfaffenchristen
    • 7.Kommt mit Zacken und mit Gabeln
    • 8.So weit gebracht
    • 9.Hilf, ach hilf mir, Kriegsgeselle
    • 10.Die Flamme reinigt sich vom Rauch
Mendelssohn's relationship with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was both complex and problematical. An approximate contemporary of Mozart, Goethe revered that composer's work to the extent he understood it but found no favor in the Romantic thrashings of Beethoven, for example, even though he himself was a linchpin in the evolution of Romanticism. Having most likely never heard of the 12-year-old Mendelssohn in 1821, Goethe was persuaded to meet him by a mutual friend, Carl Friedrich Zelter, who was also Mendelssohn's musical advisor. Zelter, a composer of modest gifts, had himself attempted to set Goethe's Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Witches' Night) to music as early as 1799, but had given up, realizing that the task was beyond him. Upon discovering the young Mendelssohn, Zelter believed he had found someone with the talent to finish the job. Believing also that Mendelssohn's early emulation of Mozart's style would endear him to Goethe, he urged the project forward. It would be an exaggeration to say the two collaborated; Mendelssohn's view of the poem was shallow in the extreme and his music, brilliant nonetheless, reflects only the theater of it, ignoring Goethe's underlying meaning. That Goethe's profundities might be beyond a 12-year-old apparently occurred only to Mendelssohn himself, and the work was not finished in any version until 11 years later, in 1832, the year Goethe died. It was not performed until 1842, after extensive revision and rethinking. Goethe, it is presumed, would not have approved. In any event, the music itself is brilliant. Nearly 36 minutes in length, the work is in effect a set of nine seamlessly connected songs based upon the text of the poem. Scattered among alto, tenor, baritone, bass, and choir, these are preceded by a feverish ten-minute overture. The piece little resembles the Witches' Sabbath movement of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, created at about the same time: listeners expecting sonic pyrotechnics will be disappointed, but those wishing to hear how Mendelssohn brings musical dimension to Goethe's darkly philosophical work will realize that his settings are effective and even chilling. As a footnote, it is interesting to consider that Mendelssohn also revered Beethoven's work, and whereas the latter in his Symphony No. 9 crafted a heaven-storming work based upon a more or less superficial poem, Mendelssohn here created a much less ambitious work based upon a much more profound piece of literature. One wonders whether he felt Beethoven's ghost peering over his shoulder, and whether such a specter might have contributed to his taking 21 years to finally finish and perform the work.

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