In 1825 the 16-year-old Mendelssohn stunned the musical world with his String Octet. This was followed a year later by a second, equally stunning piece – the overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The plays of Shakespeare were a source of delight to the Mendelssohn family. The piece was originally written as a piano duet, but a fully orchestrated version soon followed, and received its first performance at the family mansion in Berlin. The first public performance was given at Stettin in 1827.
Although Liszt has been credited with inventing the tone or symphonic poem, this overture of Mendelssohn’s may be considered a precursor.
The “Incidental Music” proper to Shakespeare’s play consists of thirteen numbers, and was written in response to a commission from the King of Prussia. It was first performed, together with the Overture and the complete play, at the Potsdam Palace in October 1843, and was repeated on two further nights.
There is therefore a gap of sixteen years between overture and incidental music, but it is from the former that the latter has been distilled.
There is a hint of mystery in the opening chords. The fluttering of the high string passages is clearly suggestive of the fairy world we are about to enter, and echoes Duke Theseus’ injunction to “Awake the pert and noble spirit of mirth”. The Duke’s hunting horns are heard, together with the deep donkey brays of Bottom’s transformation.
An entr’acte before Act II Scene I. The quicksilver spirit of the fairies is here invoked as they dart
“Over hill, over dale Thorough bush, thorough brier.”
An entr’acte at the end of Act III. It opens with a beautiful horn solo, and we are immediately transported to the dream world of the tired mortals.
Act V is drawing to a close. After all the machinations between mortals and fairies, Oberon expresses his heartfelt wish that
"So shall all the couples three Ever true in loving be"