Overture, The Fair Melusine

Programme note

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Overture, The Fair Melusine, Op 32 (1833)

Mendelssohn thought his Fair Melusine overture “the best” and “most intimate” thing he had ever produced, an opinion shared, as he informed his beloved sister Fanny in a letter, by many of the people who heard him conduct it in Leipzig in 1836. On the other hand, he was irked by an excessively descriptive review of it by a German critic, whose references to red coral, green sea-beasts, magic castles, and deep seas were, he complained, “all rubbish.”

Yet Melusine is undoubtedly a magical piece, sufficiently watery in its imagery to incorporate an unmistakable foretaste of the rippling prelude to Das Rheingold, in which the notoriously anti-semitic Wagner paid direct tribute to a composer he professed to despise. While writing Melusine, Mendelssohn was in fact a resident of the Rhineland, working in Dusseldorf, conducting at the Lower Rhine Festival, developing his talents as a Sunday landscape painter and, on one occasion, bathing naked in the river when the Queen of Bavaria’s boat suddenly sailed round a bend. Well, at least his distinguished musical admirer Queen Victoria was not on board.

The overture’s inspiration lay obliquely in an opera on the same subject by Conradin Kreutzer, which the suave but irritable Mendelssohn had seen and disliked. Annoyed by the fact that Kreutzer’s overture was encored, he swore that he could write a better one, which people would receive “more inwardly.” With his love for musical gossamer, the story of the watersprite Melusine (recognisable relative of Dvořák’s Rusalka and Henze’s Ondine) suited him perfectly. His mellifluous opening theme immediately catches the mood, and the other themes sustain it. Yet there is more than mellowness here. As Edinburgh’s distinguished musical essayist Donald Francis Tovey once put it, the overture has an underlying agitation and sorrow, reflecting what can happen when a watersprite is permitted to marry a mortal on condition that her true nature is concealed.

Though the art of the concert overture, or what eventually became the symphonic poem, had its roots in Beethoven, Mendelssohn developed it into something fresh, in which lyrical and pictorial elements gained new importance without suppressing Beethovenian sonata-form. Into this classical structure, Mendelssohn inserted music suggestive of Melusine’s mysterious beauty and of her spouse’s suspicions. But if there are passing sounds of despair, the ending is calm - which tells us, perhaps, as much about Mendelssohn as about Melusine. As for Beethoven, he once toyed with Grillparzer’s Melusine libretto which Kreutzer eventually set, but the idea failed to grip him.

© Conrad Wilson