Mendelssohn’s Orchestra Plays Melusine

an architectural detail featuring Melusine, half woman, half mermaid.
an architectural detail featuring Melusine, half woman, half mermaid.

Felix Mendelssohn’s overture, The Beautiful Melusine, was inspired by a legend which Max Derrickson describes:

The legend of the half-mermaid, Melusine, appears to date back over nearly twelve centuries.  The arrestingly beautiful Melusine, born of a mortal father and water sprite mother, is cursed to take the form of a serpent from her waist down (a mermaid) one day each week.  This was done by her mother, furious with Melusine for entombing her father in a mountain for his mistreatment of her mother.  Some years later Melusine is proposed to by a man of nobility.  As did her mother years before, she agrees to marriage but with the one condition that she maintain absolute privacy on her “serpent day” of secrecy.  Great happiness envelopes the two lovers, until the inevitable day arrives when the condition is broken.  Upon being discovered she is doomed to remain in her mermaid form for eternity.

For Mendelssohn, the legend seems to have been a jumping off point. You won’t hear a depiction of the story, although there is a feeling of flowing water throughout the music. At moments, there is a hint of the clear, yet complex imitative counterpoint of J.S. Bach, whose music Mendelssohn was dedicated to reviving.

Here is a great recording of The Beautiful Melusine by Kurt Masur and Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn was principal conductor at the Gewandhaus between 1835 and 1847. The concert hall he would have known, constructed in 1781, was replaced in 1884. That hall was destroyed during the fire-bombing of the Second World War. Conductor Kurt Masur laid the first stone of the foundation for the current Gewandhaus, completed in 1981.

Chopin’s Fourth Ballade

The manuscript of Chopin's Fourth Ballade
The manuscript of Chopin’s Ballade No. 4

Frederic Chopin didn’t need to write monumental symphonies. His Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 reveals a universe of musical expression in just over ten minutes. Written between 1835 and 1842, Chopin’s four harmonically adventurous Ballades for solo piano inspired both Liszt and Brahms. Robert Schumann said that Chopin’s inspiration for the Fourth Ballade was Adam Mickiewicz’s poem, The Three Budrys.

Let’s listen to a spectacular performance of Ballade No. 4 by pianist Krystian Zimerman. The piece evolves from a distinctive five note motive. Does the music go where you expect or does it deliver surprises? Notice the drama Chopin achieves from a single chord or a sudden key change. As full blown Romanticism, this music is all about savoring the expression of the moment. Each harmony and key has emotional meaning, although we would have a hard time describing it in words. Although there is a formal structure at work, it’s easy to hear one episode spinning from another in a musical stream of consciousness.

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[quote][it is] the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions … It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.[/quote]

-composer and pianist John Ogdon

Did you notice the way the opening seems to come out of nowhere, as if finishing some imaginary, unheard preceding phrase? Here, and throughout the piece, Chopin subtly changes the inner voices in interesting ways. For a moment the music seems to be searching for a way forward (0:30) before finding its five note motive. At times this motive is hidden in inner voices (around 6:04 and in the coda from 10:22 to the end).

Another interesting aspect of the music is the way simplicity leads to increased complexity. At 1:29 we already begin to get ornamental embellishments. At 3:25 there is a competing contrapuntal voice which grows increasingly insistent. By 8:04 embellishment has taken over completely.

In September of 1939, as the Germans marched into Poland, radio stations continuously played Chopin’s music in defiance. Eventually radio was silenced in Poland, replaced with loudspeakers blaring Nazi propaganda, but the story is a reminder of the transcendent spiritual power of music.