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Felix Mendelssohn

The Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26

Few pieces of music evoke so perfectly the source of their inspiration as does the concert overture Felix Mendelssohn wrote while visiting the Hebrides, a series of small islands off the west coast of Scotland, in 1829. In early August of that year, Mendelssohn and a friend traveled to the islands by boat. Mendelssohn was overwhelmed by the scenery and wrote to his sister Fanny, “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.” He included the first 21 bars of the overture, with its famous descending melody. The following day, Mendelssohn visited Fingal’s Cave, the largest and most spectacular of several caverns on the small island of Staffa. Fingal’s Cave, whose Gaelic name translates as “cave of melody,” lends itself to musical depiction. Composed of hexagonal basalt columns, it is an astonishing natural cathedral, 227 feet long, with an arched roof and distinctive acoustics.

The confusion of the two titles for this overture comes from Mendelssohn himself; he appended several names to this work, including “The Hebrides” and “The Solitary Isle.” The first published score gave the work as “Fingal’s Cave,” but individual orchestral parts bore the title “The Hebrides.” Today, the overture is known by both names.

Despite the programmatic elements of this overture, Mendelssohn had no specific story or extra-musical inspiration in mind, other than the spectacular wild beauty of the islands themselves. Mendelssohn fussed over the music, making a number of revisions even after its 1832 premiere. He was particularly dissatisfied with the central section: “The forte, D Major middle section is very silly and the entire so-called development tastes more of counterpoint than of whale oil, seagulls and salted cod, and it ought to be the other way around.” Whatever the faults of its earlier versions, real or imagined, today this overture is one of Mendelssohn’s most popular orchestral works, a skillful musical evocation of a stunning natural wonder.

  • Composer: born February 3, 1809, Hamburg; died November 4, 1847, Leipzig
  • Work composed: Mendelssohn wrote the Hebrides Overture between 1829 and 1833 and revised it several times. Dedicated to King Frederick William IV of Prussia
  • World premiere: Mendelssohn conducted the premiere of his final version of Op. 26 in Berlin on January 10, 1833.
  • Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
  • Estimated duration: 10 minutes

© 2021 Elizabeth Schwartz