Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Hebrides Overture

J. M. W. Turner, Staffa, Fingal's Cave, 1832 

Last night I watched the recent Charles Hazlewood documentary for the BBC on Felix Mendelssohn which included some discussion of the Hebrides Overture (completed in 1830).  There is an interview with biographer R. Larry Todd on the BBC's Mendelssohn site in which the composer's creation of the Hebrides Overture is discussed:

'From what I can tell, he was essentially a synaesthete, meaning that for him visual and musical imagery are interconnected. So when he goes to the Hebrides and he’s in Oban looking out at the coastline of Mull, it’s there he gets the idea for the opening of the Hebrides Overture and he writes a famous letter that sketches everything out in piano score. The fact that he puts it in a particular location means it’s clear that already in that composition there’s something about the particular combinations of colour that evolve and that what’s triggering it is the visual impression of looking out at the Isle of Mull. Well before he even got to Fingal’s Cave, he’s having the ideas for the Overture and it’s a visual impression that’s sparking the musical response. These things go hand in hand and particularly are tied in with the art of orchestration. That’s the romantic side of Mendelssohn.'

Sketch of a scene by Felix Mendelssohn 
found in his letter of August 1, 1829 to his sister Fanny

As you can see on the Birth of British Music site, Charles Hazlewood donned his woolly hat and headed north to Staffa (don't get me wrong - I like the hat - it could have been much worse).  The wind, waves and echoes of Fingal's Cave threatened to drown out Hazlewood as he stood there explaining the genesis of Mendelssohn's overture.  The programme included a clip of Andrew Motion comparing Mendelssohn to John Keats, who also visited Staffa in 1818 (Mendelssohn went in 1829).   Keats jotted down a poem, 'Staffa', in a letter to his brother Tom (rather dismissing it, saying "I am sorry I am so indolent as to write such stuff as this"). Here is part of the poem in which a spirit, Lycidas, describes the overwhelming power of the natural music to be heard at Fingal's Cave:

This was architectur'd thus
By the great Oceanus! -
Here his mighty waters play
Hollow organs all the day;
Here by turns his dolphins all,
Finny palmers great and small,
Come to pay devotion due -
Each a mouth of pearls must strew.
Many a mortal of these days,
Dares to pass our sacred ways,
Dares to touch audaciously
This Cathedral of the Sea!
I have been the pontiff-priest
Where the waters never rest,
Where a fledgy sea-bird choir
Soars for ever; holy fire
I have hid from mortal man;
Proteus is my Sacristan.


rochelle said...


I wanted to let you know, I wrote an article about blogs in the landscape industry for the publication 'Landscape - Middle East' that was published in July. I included your blog in the piece and I thought you might want to see it. You can check out the online copy of the magazine at and this specific article can be seen here:
I hope it is having some positive impact on your site and please accept my apologies for leaving this as a comment, but I could not find anoy other way of getting in touch with you.

Rochelle Greayer

Writer and Editor:
Studio 'g'

Plinius said...

Thanks for the mention and for letting me know. Makes me wish I had a better name for this blog... ah well too late to change now I think.