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Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Trumpet Overture, Op 101 (1826, revised 1833)
Though one of the first masters of the art of the concert overture - as The Hebrides, The Fair Melusine, and Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage all consummately testify - Mendelssohn did not win sustained acclaim for every work he composed in the new-fangled format which eventually developed into the Lisztian symphonic poem. His so-called Trumpet Overture in C major, written just before the teenage ravishments of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, remains a fiery rarity which has still to gain its deserved place in the orchestral repertoire.
Yet Christopher Hogwood’s modern Urtext edition of a work unpublished in its composer’s lifetime provides impressive scope for the music at last to make its way in the world. Its title, referring to the brassy opening fanfare and its numerous recurrences, may not be specially Mendelssohnian or even thoroughly authentic. Eduard Devrient, the nineteenth-century German baritone, recalled the piece’s first appearance at one of the Mendelssohn family’s Sunday afternoon parties and how “we gave it the name of Trumpet Overture” (his use of the first person plural suggesting that Mendelssohn was not necessarily responsible for it). But the title appeared to become fixed in the course of performances in various places, including Berlin, where the work was included in a festival commemorating the 300th anniversary of Albrecht Durer’s death; Dusseldorf, where it served as prelude to Handel’s Israel in Egypt with Mendelssohn as conductor; and London, where it was heard at the time of the premiere of the Italian symphony, a score for which the composer inexplicably had considerable misgivings.
But if the symphony soon established itself internationally (even though Mendelssohn only conducted it once) the overture before long fell by the wayside. Just why is hard to say. Though filled with conspicuous foretastes of The Hebrides - even the recurring fanfare looks forward to the later work - the music perhaps suffered from having no story to tell, no picture to convey, no person to commemorate. As a tone painting it remains entirely abstract, which is not necessarily a drawback if we take into account its dramatic sweep, intensity of utterance, lyrical imagination, and mysterious suggestion that somewhere beneath its surface lies a hidden message.
In the work’s poetic detail, the Hebrides unquestionably looms large, even if Mendelssohn had yet to visit Fingal’s Cave. Even in a version shorn - maybe beneficially - of its original trombones, it is music that makes all its Mendelssohnian points, and is all the better perhaps for letting the listener decide what, if anything, it evokes.
© Conrad Wilson