Last week, Chicago-area elementary students and families were treated to a rare event: a live production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream accompanied by Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the play, directed and adapted by David H. Bell, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and actors from Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Both Shakespeare’s drama and Mendelssohn’s score were heavily edited and highly abbreviated, for this entertaining production at the Symphony Center functioned effectively as a teaching text for younger children. Taking the role of emcee, Maestro Edwin Outwater regularly paused from conducting to offer background about Mendelssohn and his music, introduce the play’s characters to the young audience, gloss major plot points, and even act as a meta-theatrical conduit between players and orchestra: “Maestro, can you give us some cool, swag, hip music for our entrance?” asked Bottom as the mechanicals prepared to perform their disastrous Pyramus and Thisbe. “I’ve got just the thing,” Outwater replied before launching the symphony into the players’ “Prologue.”
As Outwater reminded his audience, Mendelssohn (1809-1847) grew up enamored of Shakespeare. He and his sisters amused themselves as children by acting out various scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, and Mendelssohn continued to draw inspiration from those texts throughout his life. The Mendelssohn family acquired a German translation (Schlegel) of Midsummer in 1826, when Felix was 17, and their young prodigy promptly composed a piano duet based on the comedy to perform at home with his sister Fanny. He went on to orchestrate the piece shortly thereafter, transforming it into a concert overture; its 1827 debut would be his first public performance, and the Overture would go on to become one of his most famous compositions. Later, in 1843, King Frederick William IV of Prussia commissioned him to write incidental music for a stage production of the play, the finished version of which incorporated and expanded upon his earlier Overture.
Throughout his career, Mendelssohn established a strong interest in recuperating and reimagining older texts. He was a devoted fan of J.S. Bach’s baroque compositions, which by the early years of the Romantic music period (ca. 1820s) were decidedly unfashionable. In 1829, he conducted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion that radically re-arranged Bach’s score and refashioned the piece, originally written to accompany a Good Friday church service, into a stand-alone work. This performance established a tradition for performing the Passion as a concert piece and reinvigorated popular interest in Bach’s vocal works. In 1841, Mendelssohn composed a piano accompaniment to the Chaconne of Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin. Later Romantic composers—Liszt and Brahms among them—followed suit and rearranged Bach’s music for more up-to-date instrumental configurations, re-establishing Bach as a dominant influence on the evolving compositional landscape.
Mendelssohn’s musical interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is likewise a product of innovative reimagination. Unlike Bach, Shakespeare had continued to enjoy robust popularity throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, so the composer’s interest hardly recuperated any lost public estimation. However, it did sway the course of Romantic music, helping to amplify the growing vogue for thematic compositions that emphasized drama and lyricism. In its initial public iteration as the stand-alone Overture, Mendelssohn’s take on Midsummer kicked off a fashion for concert overtures—that is, pieces inspired by literature but not intended to accompany a staged production. Concert overtures became an essential form of Romantic music, eventually evolving into the “tone poem,” a characteristic form of the later Romantic period. In looking back to Shakespeare’s two-hundred-year-old play, Mendelssohn helped initiate an emergent compositional movement.
The second iteration of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer again reimagined the role of form. As incidental music, the final version was crafted to accompany a staged production of the play. Its movements follow the action of the plot, and also include a number of vocal pieces set to Shakespeare’s own verses (“Ye spotted snakes” and “What hempen homespuns,” among others). This time, however, Mendelssohn looked back not only to Shakespeare’s text for inspiration, but to his own work, incorporating his adolescent Overture and drawing from its musical themes—including the E-minor pitter-patter of dancing fairies and the strings’ Bottomesque “hee-haws”—to elaborate characterological motifs and highlight on-stage action.
Such an approach, looking back to move forward artistically, is not out of line with Shakespeare’s own patterns of authorship. “The Bard,” after all, is not famous for the originality of his plot lines. Midsummer itself borrows from classical mythology to tell what is in many ways a distinctly English fairytale. At the end of his career, Shakespeare (like Mendelssohn more than two centuries later) returned to his earlier work in Midsummer to reimagine the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta in yet “another key” in the tragicomic The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Last week’s performances at the Symphony Center, collaboratively produced between the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, effectively presented a new, hybrid text of the two Midsummers. Designed with an audience of children in mind, the performance reworked the symphonic and dramatic versions into an accessible spectacle aimed at teaching newcomers about the play and Mendelssohn’s interpretation. Shakespeare’s text was heavily reduced to highlight the musical accompaniment, and much of the on-stage action was danced and mimed. (The performance, one could say, served to reimagine and recuperate the pre-modern theatrical staple of the “dumb show,” putting it to good use for the young audience; the dumb shows throughout the performance allowed the audience to gain a sense of character, place, and musical style without becoming lost in the complexities of Elizabethan English.) The production furthermore underscored the play’s potential for fantastical spectacle and physical comedy, showcasing the cast’s impressive acrobatic abilities as well as their talents for slapstick. Maestro Outwater provided editorial commentary and historical background, offering an interpretive access point for viewers so that they could grasp not only plot and character details, but listen for the ways that Mendelssohn’s score both represents and interprets the play.
This was a production with two clear objectives in mind: to educate, and to inspire appreciation in young people new to the performance hall. Ostensibly it aimed to teach the children in the audience about the plot of Shakespeare’s play and the sounds of Mendelssohn’s music, but in so self-consciously packaging its reinterpretation as a teaching text, the performance also managed to convey something important about the spirit of Shakespearean authorship and Mendelssohnian composition: what both owe not only to the processes of imagination, but re-imagination, too.
Rebecca L. Fall is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of English at Northwestern University, where she teaches courses on Renaissance literature and media history. She is currently writing a book on nonsense writing, clownish language and silly jokes in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature. Her research has been supported by several nationally competitive fellowships, including the Mellon/ACLS and Mellon-CES Dissertation Completion Fellowships. Rebecca holds a PhD and an MA in English from Northwestern University, and a BA in English from the University of Virginia.