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Felix Mendelssohn
Märchen von der schönen Melusine (“The Fair Melusine”)

Felix Mendelssohn

  • Born: February 3, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany
  • Died: November 4, 1847 in Leipzig, Germany


Märchen von der schönen Melusine (“The Fair Melusine”)

  • Composed: 1833-35
  • Premiere: April 7, 1834, London Philharmonic Society, Ignaz Moscheles conducting; revised version—November 23, 1835, Gewandhaus Leipzig, C.G. Miller conducting 
  • Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
  • CSO notable performances: First Performance: December 1902, Frank Van der Stucken conducting. Most Recent Performance: April 1934, Eugene Goossens conducting. Other: This piece was played on a May 2000 Lollipops Concert conducted by Alastair Willis.
  • Duration: approx. 10 minutes

The story of the “Little Mermaid,” which received the full-blown tragic treatment in Alexander Zemlinsky’s tone poem Die Seejungfrau (heard after intermission), has roots in European literature going back all the way to the Middle Ages. The figure of a woman caught between the human world and a mystical parallel universe, hidden in the depths of the sea, captured the imaginations of several early 19th-century writers, including Hans Christian Andersen, Franz Grillparzer and others. Grillparzer, the most celebrated Austrian poet of his time, originally intended his opera libretto about the mermaid, whom he called Melusine, for Beethoven, but nothing came of the project. A minor composer named Conradin Kreutzer picked up the libretto and wrote a three-act opera based on it. Felix Mendelssohn went to see this opera but was less than enthusiastic. As he told his sister Fanny in a letter, he liked the overture least of all. He decided that he could do much better and composed his own overture on the subject. Unfortunately, he stopped there and did not rewrite the entire opera.

Grillparzer based his Melusine on an old French legend in which the protagonist is married to Raimund, a handsome knight who is utterly unaware that Melusine had been born a mermaid. She marries him on the condition that he must never enter her room on Saturdays—on that day she disappears to visit her father’s underwater kingdom. The day Raimund breaks his vow marks the end of their marriage, and Melusine is forced to give up her human existence and has to return to her native realm forever.

The first section of Mendelssohn’s overture depicts the water with a musical figure that was later appropriated by Wagner to serve a similar purpose at the beginning of Rheingold. (The entire Melusine story has a Wagnerian parallel in Lohengrin, where Elsa is similarly prohibited from inquiring about her spouse’s origins.) A second, stormier motif represents the fundamental conflict between the two people and their respective worlds, while a third theme, more lyrical, portrays the doomed love between Raimund and Melusine. The water theme returns at the end, as Melusine disappears beneath the waves for good.

—Peter Laki