Midsummer Dreamt by William and Felix

Into the enchanted forest, kingdom of the fairies. © Charles Thibo
Into the enchanted forest, kingdom of the fairies. © Charles Thibo

Midsummer – time to dream… Let’s embark on a journey through the world of fairies with the brilliant composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, whose sister Fanny we have already met, and the 16th century writer William Shakespeare. Don’t worry, you may, but will not have to have read Shakespeare’s piece “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, even though it is a witty and funny one and certainly worth reading. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy has composed an overture (Op. 21) and a larger piece of 11 movements (Op. 61), both inspired by Shakespeare’s theater piece, that hopefully will enchant you. The British actress Judi Dench, our guest star today, will act as our guide through Shakespeare’s lovely verses to keep you on track.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born in 1809 and the son of Jewish parents who later turned to the protestant faith to gain acceptance by the German bourgeoisie. Felix got an excellent education – reading Shakespeare’s works and seeing his plays performed were part of it. He was deeply impressed by the piece “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and composed the overture at the age of 17. Since the piece has been performed for the first time (and widely acclaimed) in London, it remains one of the most popular of Mendelssohn’s works.

Op. 61 followed 17 years later – a composition first performed in Potsdam in the presence of the King of Prussia Friedrich-Wilhelm. The success was immediate and listening to the different movements will easily explain why. Mendelssohn, a representative of the German romantic era, proved his extraordinary talent by setting into music this tale about the fairies Puck, Oberon and Titania and the entangled human love stories they mess with. The composer managed to unite in this masterwork both the light-hearted, even comic elements of Shakespeare’s play and the writer’s deeper philosophical thoughts about human passion, vanity and the part that fate may play in life.

Op. 61 evokes in every melody the magic palpable on a warm summer night, the twilight making things look different from what they are, the heavy scent of flowers, the light of the full moon bathing an enchanted forest – all elements that confuse human minds and make foolish mortals fall in love with each other.

This recording I cherish features the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus – a brilliant execution of Mendelssohn’s score. And Judi Dench as a narrator is just gorgeous. You will love her voice and her intonation.

The synopsis of the play can be found here.

I truly hope that these two pieces will give you as much joy and fun as they gave me in the past. A midsummer night’s dream should be part of everyone’s life from time to time as it offers us some rest in an otherwise often strenuous life.

© Charles Thibo

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4 thoughts on “Midsummer Dreamt by William and Felix”

  1. I was given it as a present a recording by the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado, with Kenneth Branagh reciting bits of the play. It’s a lovely recording, except for the fact that there’s a technical problem: for some reason, you can barely hear Branagh’s voice.

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