Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809 in Hamburg, the second son of a distinguished intellectual artistic and banking family. He studied piano, theory and composition, producing his first piece at the age of 11. Thereafter he wrote a profusion of sonatas, concertos, string symphonies, piano quartets and singspiels. Mendelssohn’s music shows the influence of Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven. He was also a gifted conductor.
Always a warm friend and valued colleague, he was devoted to his family. His death at the age of 38, after a series of strokes, was mourned internationally.
The initial inspiration for the Hebrides Overture came from Mendelssohn’s experiences during his European travels in his early 20s. His first trip was to Britain, where a walking tour in Scotland provided him with powerful impressions that he encapsulated visually in a collection of sketches, and aurally in a number of compositions he completed over the following years.
In a letter to his family, after a rather stormy two–day cruise among the Inner Hebrides – during which he saw Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa – he sketched 20 bars of music almost exactly as they appear in the opening of the Hebrides Overture.
Fingal’s Cave itself, twenty metres wide and over sixty metres deep, is an impressive sight with huge hexagonal rock pillars stretching high out of the sea. On stormy days, the sound of waves crashing against the rocks echoes across the island.
Mendelssohn wonderfully captures the swell of the mighty ocean around Fingal’s Cave, using the original 20-bar phrase of music. It is a grand musical seascape, and the whole piece is held together by this haunting and insistent little phrase, heard at the outset on the strings.
Several changes of mood reflect the unpredictable character of the sea; a calmer theme, then more restless passages on strings and woodwind, building to a really stormy episode as the untamed wind and waves thunder around the cave. Every so often, a drum roll interrupts as a large breaker crashes. Then the whole piece is alternately as calm and violent as the ocean itself.