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Here we have one of the most beautiful of Romantic overtures ever composed, and it was dedicated to A CAVE.


Fingal's Cave on the island of Staffa, one of the Hebrides Islands, off the west coast of Scotland.  Actual photograph.

Quite a beautiful and mysterious sea cave, too, and a beautiful seascape.  My clip art problems were easily solved when I chose this piece to cover.  Fingal's Cave is also notorious for its turbulent and dangerous waters.  As we should all know by now, turbulent waters was a favorite theme of the Romantics, sometimes irritatingly so.  I couldn't find, with my cursory search, any storm photos that could match the violence of the many Romantic period paintings of the Fingal's Cave seacoast.  I liked this painting by Thomas Moran.

More below the squiggle, including the music.

Quick note about the Thursday Classical Music series:

I haven't done one of these diaries for a while.  I want to thank, humbly, humbly, humbly, as befits the worthless beggar that I am, Dave in Northridge for what he has done in keeping the Thursday Classical Music torch going while I've been doodling around.  I'm not sure if I'll be doing many more of these diaries anytime soon, so anybody that wants to take over or collaborate to keep it going, your help would be sorely appreciated by all.  I claim no ownership to this series.  It's not generally that difficult to do as long as you're enthusiastic about your subject.  Expertise is unnecessary.  Nobody will criticize you if you do a shitty half-assed job, as I can attest, because they will be so grateful for anything you post.

I didn't think I would post this today, because my head just isn't quite in the game for this right now, but I set out to just act to myself like I was going to post one, and... tada, it worked!  Although, admittedly, I chose something easy that everybody would love.  And that has such easy to find and steal clip art to make for a pretty promotion.

To further celebrate my listening to this, I'll be drinking MacCallan's 10 year old Scotch whisky as I listen and type, a reasonably priced (even cheap) single-malt scotch.  Mmmm...  Ah, the burn.  The box it came in said that this batch would have a nose that is "Complex, with a hint of fruit and heather honey."  Well, heather honey... Who wouldn't know what that tastes like?

My dad was a salesman for McKesson.  He would be ashamed of my ignorance in matters of fine liquor.  I drank some Johnny Walker Black in front of him one time, and he became upset, launching into a long speech about how all blended Scotches were GARBAGE.  (He said this even though he sold Johnny Walker.)  He was more into bourbon, I think.  He had one of the world's biggest collections of Jim Beam collector bottles, hundreds and hundreds of Jim Beam bottles shaped like matadors and trains and little dutch girls, etc.  Sort of like beanie babies for drunken middle class snobs.

Dumbo takes a swig... Oh... nice burn...


Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn at home.

Mendelssohn composed this when he was 21.  Before you say that that was too young, the fact is, many of his greatest works were composed when he was young, even though he had a long career.  His greatest composition might be the Midsummer's Night Dream Overture, which he composed when he was all of 17 years old.  I once started to write a diary on his Midsummer's Night Dream but abandoned it when I realized just how complicated a task it would be.  Mendelssohn was brilliant, and his musical brilliance expressed itself early.  He has been compared to Mozart in this regard, but unlike Mozart, his music didn't really grow by the same leaps and bounds as he aged.  

So I'm quite pleased exploring the "early" works of Mendelssohn.  Composed in 1830, this is about contemporary with Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and Schubert's Ninth Symphony, making it early or middle period Romanticism.  The harmonic vocabulary isn't as wild as some things that were yet to come with the later Romantics.  But unlike some of those other Romantics, Mendelssohn excelled at something they must have envied: Counterpoint.  The ability to have many different musical things going on all at the same time without them stumbling over each other.  That's what I wait for when I listen to Mendelssohn.  The Fingal's Cave overture begins relatively simply, with a clear transparent main theme carried by the deeper voice of the cellos.  That relative simplicity will give way to greater complexity as the work progresses.

Dumbo takes another swig.  Ahhhh!

Being a Romantic overture, this piece is in the usual Sonata-allegro form.  So... I get to whip out my handy-dandy roadmap to classical music which I use to save time explaining things.

The Fingal's Cave Overture (or Hebrides Overture) by Felix Mendelssohn.

Exposition First Theme (0:00)

As the piece begins, the cellos in their deeper voice announce the main theme.  (In B minor).  There's tension in the air, as the violins, in the high register maintain a single tremolo note.  And then, at 0:15, the strings take control of the theme, intruding first with a swelling sound like a sea wave breaking.  There's a watery turbulence to this main theme.  And so we begin, with suppressed turbulence combined with breaking, swelling waters.  How very visual.

As the theme progresses, now carried by the strings, the complexity (counterpoint!) grows a bit, but remains controlled.  The music is sad and tinged with mystery.

Speaking of complexity... Dumbo takes another swig...  Ah the sweet burn!  Heather honey!

At 1:24, the mood lightens a bit and we start to change key, preparing us for...

Exposition: Second Theme (1:38)

The second theme is announced, like the first theme, by the cellos, with the higher strings shimmering.  We're now in the relative major key, D major.  Part of the charm of this theme is the discreet way it flexes in and out of E major and back to D.

At 2:00, the second theme is passed to the strings, but they add some of that oceanic wave-like swelling, the way the volume peaks on the high notes and then settles back.

At 2:35, a fragment of the first theme returns, signaling a new section coming...  And...

Exposition: Codetta (or third theme) (2:42)

The music now asserts itself aggressively.  (Still in D major).  The drums and brass come in, woohoo!  This codetta theme is a more assertive major key version of the first theme.  There's also a kind of "fanfare" quality to it.  Mendelssohn effectively announces, "That's that for the exposition.  Major stuff soon to come."  

Development Section (3:23)

The fanfare of the trumpets trails off, and the mysterious murmurs of the first theme try to make a comeback.  This calling and answering, the trumpets with their piece of the fanfare, the cellos with a piece of the first theme.  The violins shimmering with high tremolo notes.  With a series of several key changes in quick succession, Mendelssohn creates a sense of tense expectation.

At 3:56, the woodwinds enter with the brief appearance of a new fragment, like a new character in the drama.  Da. Duh. Dada, daduh...  It's a bit ominous and will recur.

But now the mood lightens a bit.  At 4:18, we get a short variation of the second theme.  At 4:35, a variation on the first theme.  At 5:11, another variation on the first theme, but now it gallops like a horse.  

The tension rises.  We head right into the climax of the development, which comes at 5:42.  

Recapitulation First Theme (6:09)

... And the first theme returns, back in the home key of B minor, back in the cellos again.  However, it has "learned a lesson along the way," so to speak, so Mendelssohn doesn't just regurgitate it to us.

Recapitulation Second Theme (6:59)

The second theme returns, played now by the woodwinds.  Now it has been calmed, made tranquil as a lullabye, without all that "swelling of the waves."

Recapitulation Coda (7:36)

And now begins a long, dramatic coda.  The newfound tranquility of the second theme evaporates and we're back in busy, anxious water sounds.  That "new character" fragment we heard at 3:56 returns, as well.  Nothing is wasted here, no leftover spare parts in this overture!  It becomes agitated, and soon it is swelling.  

I told you previously that Mendelssohn was a master of counterpoint, didn't I?  Get ready for the best part of the ride.  21 years old, this guy.  If you feel like you know this piece already because you've heard it in cartoons and don't need to listen to it again... this is the good stuff coming.

The first theme, or something like it, returns now, (7:53) but like a gale force hurricane, both major and minor at times, both.  The drums are back, pounding atop it, creating a growing, powerful driving rhythm, driving the overture to its climax.

At 9:59, the violence begins to gradually recede.  After a few final bullying beats of the drum, the overture ends with the solo flute sadly playing part of the first theme.

Next week:

I don't know.  I have drafts for two or three diaries, but they're not classical music diaries.  I've been brainstorming about a new series that would be a singing cowboy soap opera parody with some original songs and maybe hand-drawn cartoons.  But that's not part of the Thursday Classical Music series.  My head's not totally in the classical music thing right now.  I have a number of ideas of wish list classical pieces I'd like to diary some day, but I'm not all there for it right now.

I'm willing to help out as best I can, but I'd appreciate it if somebody else would take up the torch.  Let us know what you think in comments.

Time for another swig.  Oh, the sweet burn!

Originally posted to Dumbo on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 09:31 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA, An Ear for Music, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thank you! (10+ / 0-)

    I am listening as I type.  Beautiful!!

    I would love to visit The Hebrides.  :)

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 09:44:09 PM PDT

  •  Excellent diary! (8+ / 0-)

    I appreciate all the work you've put into this.

    -7.25, -6.26

    We are men of action; lies do not become us.

    by ER Doc on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 09:51:29 PM PDT

  •  When you are immersed in music as much as I am (11+ / 0-)

    You begin to hear the styles of the composers so that when you hear an unfamiliar work, you can identify the composer by compositional stand-bys he or she uses.

    Things like chord progressions, little melodic passages, that sort of thing.

    The codetta at 2:40 is one of those places that's pure Mendelssohn.  Same as the second theme recap with that clarinet duet.  I've always thought there was a certain lightness to his music.  Even in his heaviest stuff--like the Reformation Symphony.

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 10:06:56 PM PDT

  •  Welcome back, my friend! (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, radarlady, JBL55, rl en france, aravir, denig

    Much better than my humble offerings, and I'm late because I was trying to get one of the two diaries I have to write for tomorrow mostly done tonight (and it is, minus a couple of links).

    Excellent diary, and thanks.

    -7.75, -8.10; . . . Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall (h/t cooper888)

    by Dave in Northridge on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 12:12:38 AM PDT

  •  I played this in summer band in high school (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JBL55, No Exit, rl en france, Dumbo, denig

    We flute players got the violin parts. I loved the music, but some things just don't work when transcribed from four strings and a bow to ten fingers.

    Thanks for doing these. It's been so much fun to read about pieces of classical music I treasure.

    Radarlady

  •  Wonderful post! (6+ / 0-)

    I adore the Overture to Midsummers Night Dream and the Hebrides. Woke up to the manhunt in Watertown, and it was so comforting to read your diary. Thank you very much.

    "Well Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?"

    by buffie on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 03:31:41 AM PDT

  •  How exciting! (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rl en france, aravir, Dumbo, denig, radarlady

    I've been to the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland and need only to visit Fingal's Cave to make the experience complete.

    I only recently learned about Mendelssohn's "Fingal's Cave Overture" and have been meaning to search it out.

    And here you drop it right into my lap!

    Unfortunately I'm at work -- well, I'm fortunate to have a job but my corporate overlord does not allow me much in the way of streaming media, so I'll have to wait until I get home later.

    Mr. L and I will enjoy it as part of this evening's cocktail hour.

    Thank you!!!

    "The fears of one class of men are not the measure of the rights of another." ~ George Bancroft (1800-1891)

    by JBL55 on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 05:00:06 AM PDT

  •  Thank you so much for sharing your enthusiasm (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    aravir, Dumbo, denig, radarlady

    It makes learning new things easier.  And best of luck on your new diary ventures.  

    If we see further, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants - metaphor attributed to Bernard of Chartres

    by rl en france on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 05:53:39 AM PDT

  •  I LOVE Fingal's cave -- easily one of my top five (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    denig, radarlady, Dumbo

    "non-symphonic" orchestral pieces. (Another one that I absolutely love and that Fingal's Cave reminds me of, is The Moldau by Smetana -- similar haunting theme, crashing waves in the climax, and so on.)

    This reminds me from a scene in Susan Cooper's book The Boggart, set partly in Scotland. Emily is buying a recording of Fingal's Cave:

    "Nice piece," said the young man amiably. "You know it?"
         "Not yet," said Emily.
         He smiled at her as he handed over her change. "See if you can find the words inside it. They aren't there but you can hear them. They say, 'How lovely the sea is!'"
         Emily went home and played the tape, and instantly heard the words in the tune - even though, as the young man had said, there were really no words there.
    Incidentally, as I ran a Google search to find this excerpt, I came across what must have been its original source, a book of poems (available online, first published in 1976) by Edmond Wright:
    ...And Uncle Jack
    told me that Mendelssohn's 'Fingal's Cave', the tune,
    said, "How lovely the sea is!" But the drawback
    was, with the melody, after that, I soon
    couldn't hear it without the words, so the waves,
    though they struggled away, they sounded like slaves.
    Anyway, I'd definitely be willing to help out with the series. As a classical musician I have plenty of material to use! :)

    "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell)

    by Eowyn9 on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 06:48:14 AM PDT

    •  I did a bit more searching and apparently (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      denig, radarlady, Dumbo

      the "how lovely the sea is" quote originates from a still older source: the British conductor Malcolm Sargent, in 1924.

      "Among his innovations when he took over was the introduction of words and phrases to illustrate themes to a young audience. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony opened with "fee, fi, fo, fum" and Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave with "how lovely the sea is. The music press was enraged that the great composers would be so denigrated."

      "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell)

      by Eowyn9 on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 07:00:01 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Words to the second subject too (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        denig, radarlady, Dumbo

        But I always thought of them as attributed to John Barbirolli, not Flash Sargent: "Oh, what a lovely tune up-ooon the cellll-os". I can still hear Sir John's voice in my head.

        But then, when the second subject returns near the end on a solo clarinet, joined by its mate, the image of two seagulls soaring overhead is impossible to shake.

        Thanks for bringing back these diaries!

        Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?

        by UncleDavid on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 08:10:55 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  I'll PM you about that. (0+ / 0-)
  •  I am quite surprised (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    denig, radarlady, Dumbo

    at myself, for being unfamiliar with this particular piece in the Mendelssohn ouevre. I am not sure I have ever heard a Mendelssohn piece I disliked. So thanks.

    I do have to quibble about the Scotch aspect. Chivas is blended and I like it just fine after a vexing day. Over ice, but that is another topic. Ahh, the smooooothe burn

    An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head. -- Eric Hoffer

    by MichiganChet on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 07:34:59 AM PDT

    •  Ah, this must have been a treat for you, then. (0+ / 0-)

      It's hard to miss Fingal's Cave though.  It's been used in so many Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons, and films.  I was looking for any old thing to post about yesterday, so I was surfing through old film scores looking for interesting film music to cover, when I ran across the film Captain Kidd, (the old swashbuckler movies had great music) which used Fingal's Cave, and then it all crystallized: time to do Fingal's Cave.

  •  And, btw since I am more at ease in the verbal art (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eowyn9, denig, radarlady, Dumbo

    I can't help but think Fingon's cave and the Hebrides had something to do with the lyrical descriptions of caves in Tolien's 'Lord of the Rings'. I think we all recognize what a syncretist work it was, and I would not be the least bit surprised if this was the inspiration for the glittering caves near Helm's deep.

    An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head. -- Eric Hoffer

    by MichiganChet on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 07:38:18 AM PDT

  •  So beautiful to hear this streaming through my (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    radarlady, Dumbo

    house. The perfect antidote to all the insane stuff going on.

    And a fantastic diary! Thank you so so much for this.

    I voted for the human beings.

    by denig on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 08:22:44 AM PDT

  •  Just Listened to This Piece a Few Days Ago (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    radarlady, Dumbo

    Dunno 'bout you, but I think Mendelsshon had an unparalleled genius at rendering his vivid visual imagination in musical terms over any other composer I can think of.

    If he'd only written pieces evocative of his seagoing experiences, it would have been enough.  But no.  He also gave the world one of my favorite violin concertos, the E-minor, and the delightful Scottish and Italian symphonies. Plus much more.

    All this and fairyland, too.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 08:36:36 AM PDT

  •  If it's Mendelssohn counterpoint you want... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lone1c, HowieBeale, radarlady, Dumbo

    Give the scherzo of the string octet a spin. Then imagine a 16-year-old creating that sound.

    Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?

    by UncleDavid on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 08:39:44 AM PDT

  •  Cartoon music (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    radarlady, Dumbo

    The first time I heard this piece I was a young teenager and it was the music that went along to a cartoon on TV. For years I've been trying to find out what cartoon it was, because it was one of the first exposures I had to fine music, the field I chose to study years later. Does anyone know?

    Thank you so much for this series Dumbo.

    Nothing ain't gonna get done right until we reform campaign financing. Yep.

    by tonyfv on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 10:28:26 AM PDT

    •  There I Can Help You (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dumbo, jazzmaniac, martyc35

      The music was used in a series of Chuck Jones cartoons done at Warner Bros. for their "Merrie Melodies" series which are usually given the general title "Inki and the Mynah Bird".  The main character is a little African boy named Inki living in the jungle and having adventures usually invovling hunting a mynah bird.  The mynah bird is slow, solemn and apparently oblivious to Inki's pursuit as it hops across the screen to the tune of the theme from "Fingal's Cave".  Even in the shorts where the Mynah bird wasn't the main object of the case, he would show up periodically and everything would stop as the other characters stared at the mournful little bird pacing across the screen to Mendelhsohn and hopping on the off beats.

      Chuck Jones once said that Walt Disney was baffled by these cartoons and didn't understand them.  Jones said that the mynah bird was a Fourth-dimensional character; "I don't undersand the Fourt Dimension either."

      I remember seeing these cartoons on TV as a kid, but they were quietly pulled from circulation sometime in the late '60s or early '70 from fears, as I understand, of racial sensitivity.  Which is a pity, because compared to the way blacks were generally portrayed in cartoons in the '30s and '40s, Inki is a pretty decent character.  Yes, he has a bone sticking through his top-knot and a ring in his nose, but he is not depicted as lazy or cowardly, nor is he given a mockable comic dialect; (the Inki shorts have no dialogue at all).  On the contrary, Inki on the whole is brave and resourceful, even if he does sometimes find himself biting off more than he can chew.  True, he never does catch that Mynah Bird, but nobody ever catches anything in Chuck Jones cartoons, and the Mynah bird is nigh unto a Force of Nature, invincible and inperturable.

      "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

      by quarkstomper on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 02:03:05 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  It was in a number of cartoons, Warner Bros. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      martyc35, chingchongchinaman

      and Disney both, I think.  The generic cartoon storm music, along with the Flying Dutchman.  

      When I was preparing the diary yesterday, before I made up my mind what to write about, I ran into Fingal's Cave again as the soundtrack to an old swashbuckler film, Captain Kidd.

      Complete film here.  

  •  I owe my love of this type of music (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, quarkstomper, martyc35

    to two influences:  My father, who played it almost constantly on the radio when I was growing up, and Warner Brothers animation.
    I have a distant memory of an old WB cartoon that featured either a raven or a crow who would show up periodically walking along to the main theme.  Anybody else remember that?

    Only Nixon could go to China. Remember that when you think of Obama, Medicare/Medicaid, and Social Security.

    by jazzmaniac on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 03:24:32 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for coming back to do this, Dumbo. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, chingchongchinaman

    I love Mendelsshon's music. I had never heard this before (outside of cartoons and films), so it was pure pleasure. I've never been in a watery cave before, but I was lucky enough to go on a cave exploration in Chiapas, Mexico. Fantastic!

    W. H. Auden: "We must love one another or die."

    by martyc35 on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 02:10:17 PM PDT

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