MENDELSSOHN: Hebrides Overture
It was the summer of 1829, and Mendelssohn was visiting Britain for the first time at the age of just 20: it was for the premiere of his first symphony with the London Symphony, after which he travelled north to Edinburgh where he began work on his Scottish symphony, before undertaking an excursion right into the islands of the Hebrides with one of his friends.
He was on the island of Mull, bowled over by the beauty and wildness of the place and already thinking of its musical expression, when he wrote a letter home saying ‘To make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides have affected me, this is the tune that came into my head’ – and he wrote down a fragment of the memorable opening theme.
The next day he and his friend Karl travelled even further to the island of Staffa to see Fingal’s cave – a natural sea tunnel through the rock - although, as luck would have it, poor Mendelssohn was seasick for most of that journey but, the fragment stuck in his mind and he continued working on the overture for a couple of years.
ELGAR: Sea Pictures
'Sea Pictures' is in five movements, to texts by different poets, all linked by the basic theme of love withstanding all storms and stress. It opens with a tranquil nocturne called Sea Slumber Song, followed by In Haven, a short setting of a text by Elgar’s wife Alice about two lovers watching a storm at sea though not touched by it – love alone will stand. The third is Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sabbath Morning at Sea – much more dreadful and passionate about a sailor’s fears of the sea and his fears of god, with that brilliant last line, ‘Eyelids raised too long to the full Godhead’s burning’.
It’s been suggested that this is a reference to Elgar’s heartbreak following his brief and broken engagement to Helen Weaver, who subsequently sailed off to NZ.
The fourth song is the most famous, at once lively and colourful but also sinking and despairing: The land where corals lie.
And finally, the most dramatic – The Swimmer, which paints a bleaker picture of a swimmer struggling against a rough sea and eventually longing to be hidden ‘in the swirling surges.. where no light wearies and no love wanes.’
Michelle DeYoung (mezzo) and NZ Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart.
Introduced by Charlotte Wilson.
Recorded 25 March 2017, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington by RNZ Concert
Producer: David McCaw
Engineer: Graham Kennedy