Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)
Melusine is a fresh-water sprite from European mythology. Often depicted as a mermaid, the main thread that runs through many versions of the fairy tale is that she requires any nobleman seeking to marry her to never observe her in the bath, and those who cannot live with this restriction are sent packing. Mendelssohn’s overture on the subject was written in 1834 as a birthday gift for his sister Fanny, but the composer denied any specific correspondences between his music and the plot of the story. The overture alternates between gently rippling music (as heard in the clarinets at the beginning) and the more agitated music introduced by the string section. As with much of Mendelssohn’s music, I find the sheer beauty and grace of the music causes orchestral players to search for their most lovely, singing tone-quality to do justice to it.
Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934)
Originally written in high keys for soprano voice, Elgar’s five Sea Pictures were transposed down for the powerful voice of English contralto Clara Butt, who reportedly gave their premiere dressed as a mermaid. The texts are by different poets, including Elgar’s wife (Caroline Alice Elgar, who was already a published author before marrying Edward). Colorful and evocative, I have always felt that these songs take wonderful advantage of the richness of the lower female voice, and a visit to Cornwall a couple of summers ago confirmed for me that the composer beautifully captured the intersection between the English coast and the sea surrounding it.
The Tender Land, Orchestral Suite from the opera
Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)
In the summer of 1970, I was a high school student at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan, and had the opportunity for an entire week to watch guest conductor Aaron Copland rehearse a concert of his own music, including an orchestral suite from his opera The Tender Land. I still have strong memories of how, in his Brooklyn accent, he coaxed the young musicians to play with “more charactah.” With their classical training, they were not used to playing their instruments as if they were accompanying a barn dance.
The suite begins with a love scene from the opera, a duet with soaring melodies that ends with ominous chords representing the grandfather’s intrusion into the end of the scene. Next comes the party scene, in which Copland shows once again his uniquely effective way of translating what we now call American “roots” music into a symphonic texture. Without pause, the suite moves on to the uplifting quintet from the end of the opera’s First Act: “The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving is born of our loving our friends and our labor.”
- Written by Conductor Dr. Steven Errante