Here is the adventure surrounding the writing and performance of the concert overture called ‘The Hebrides’. The music was inspired by composer Felix Mendelssohn’s visit to Scotland in 1829 culminating in a sea voyage from the Isle of Mull to Fingal’s Cave on the uninhabited, tiny, rocky, Hebridean Isle of Staffa.
The year, 1829: Sir Robert Peel introduces the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 into Parliament to establish a unified police force for London; madman Jonathan Martin sets York Cathedral on fire, doing £60,000 of damage; Britain outlaws suttee in India (a widow burning herself to death on her husband's funeral pyre); William Austin Burt patents America's first typewriter; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's ‘Faust, Part 1’ premieres; The first Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race takes place; the Greek War of Independence ends after eight years and six months; the ‘William Tell’ opera, Gioachino Rossini's last and greatest, premieres in Paris; J.S. Bach's ‘St Matthew Passion’ is revived by Felix Mendelssohn, conducting in Berlin; later that year the composer visits England – and Scotland.
In 1822 Mendelssohn was thirteen. The Caledonian Canal, engineered by Thomas Telford, was opened, linking the east and west coasts of Scotland through the Great Glen from Clachnaharry on the Beauly Firth near east-coast Inverness to Corpach on Loch Linnhe near Fort William on the west.
In 1829, Mendelssohn accepted an invitation to travel to England. The invite was from Sir George Smart, an English musician, and the Philharmonic Society based in London. Following a tour of England, Mendelssohn extended his travels to Scotland, where he began work on his Symphony No. 3, 'The Scottish'. His voyages through the rugged loch-strewn Highlands of western Scotland included traversing its waterways by means of the new-fangled steamboat.
The first commercially successful steamboat in Europe, Henry Bell's Comet of 1812, started a rapid expansion of steam services on the Firth of Clyde, and within four years a steamer service was in operation on the inland Loch Lomond, a forerunner of the lake steamers still gracing Swiss lakes. It is this type of vessel that would have taken Felix on the water stages of his journey through the Scottish Highlands. Remember that although these boats were then no longer dependent on wind and tide, their engines were not yet terribly efficient. You can imagine, like any steam engine powered by coal, a black, sooty, billowing chimney smoke, a substantial amount of engine noise and a trail of engine oil in its wake.
Now, a ‘skiff’ in contrast is a seaworthy rowing boat, sometimes rigged with sail and on 8th August, after the relative luxury of their steamboat trip, two friends were being rowed in such an ecologically friendly but relatively small, vunerable boat from the Isle of Mull to the uninhabited, rocky Isle of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides, far up the west coast of Scotland. One of the friends was being violently sick over the side of the boat but insisting as he held a kerchief to his mouth and gripped his somersaulting stomach that they carry on with their once-in-a-lifetime adventure to visit Fingal’s Cave. After all, despite the ocean’s swell, the weather was not too bad at all!
Felix Mendelssohn, composer, conductor, soloist, born 3rd February, 1809, Hamburg, died 4th November, 1847, Leipzig, was born into a prominent Jewish family and founded the Leipzig Conservatory, a bastion of anti-racial sentiment. He was a romantic but conservative composer whose works were meticulously created, usually undergoing radical revision before completion. A crowning achievement of his was to create a revival of interest in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, as suggested above. He is also attributed with introducing the concert overture (as opposed to the operatic overture), most notably ‘The Hebrides’.
He, Chopin and Schumann are a trinity of early 19th C. romanticism representing a refined, less expansive style than the more extroverted Berlioz and Liszt, or the theatrical Wagner. His music is charming but never philosophically deep, enchantingly magical, with a genius for the scherzo. And, clearly, he had a yen for travel.
The day before, on the 7th August, the young Felix and friend, Karl Klingemann, journeyed by steamer from Fort William down Loch Linnhe to Oban and then to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. Next day, they set out for the Inner Hebrides Isle of Staffa to visit Fingal’s Cave.
Felix’s companion, Klingemann, was a diplomat, born in Limmer an der Leine in 1798. He was secretary of the Hanoverian Legation, a diplomatic office in Berlin and, from 1828, was located in London. He was also a gifted poet and was Mendelssohn’s companion throughout his travels to Scotland.
The composer and his friend took the journey to Staffa to view the cave and eventually were able to sit in the rocking boat at the mouth of this awe-inspiring formation. His friend, Klingemann, wrote that Mendelssohn, terribly seasick during the trip, got “along better with the sea as an artist than as a human being with a stomach.”
The cave, part of the Ulva estate of the Clan MacQuarrie from an early date until 1777, was brought to the attention of the English-speaking world by 18th-century naturalist Sir Joseph Banks in 1772.
It became known as Fingal's Cave after the eponymous hero of an epic poem by 18th-century Scots poet-historian James Macpherson. The relevant section formed part of his Ossian cycle of poems claimed to have been based on old Scottish Gaelic poems.
In Irish mythology, the hero Fingal is known as Fionn mac Cumhaill, anglicised to Finn McCool and it is suggested that Macpherson rendered the name as Fingal (meaning ‘white stranger’) through a misapprehension of the name which in old Gaelic would appear as Finn. The legend of the Giant's Causeway has Fionn or Finn building the causeway between Ireland, in County Antrim on the north coast of Northern Ireland, and Staffa.
The roots of the construction between the Causeway in Antrim and Fingal’s Cave go back much further than the poem, however. Both visible geological wonders were created up to 60 million years ago by the same Paleocene lava flow and share the same unexpectedly symmetrical hexagonally-joined basalt pillars which countless tourists have since delighted in using as stepping stones. According to local experts, Staffa Tours, the columns of rock at both Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave were laid down at the same time.
Thousands of years ago, the cave was formed when underground pressures forced open a crack, which was further hewn by violent waves striking Staffa. The cave’s natural and spectacular acoustics amplify the sounds of the waves within its arched roof, earning the cave the Gaelic name ‘Uamh-Binn’, the cave of melody. The melody of the waves can be heard by visitors, including the astounded Felix and Karl, too, well before the visiting boat arrives. Teeming birdlife nests on Staffa from late April to August including puffins and the two friends had more than a chance of spotting seals, porpoises, dolphins, basking sharks and even, perhaps, whales on the trip to the island.
The Hebrides Overture began life with an opening theme that Felix jotted down in Tobermory and sent back home to his sister, Fanny. Although intending to represent his experiences travelling through the Hebrides in the manner of a tone poem, the overture has had several name changes, including the title ‘Fingal’s Cave’, which was added by the publisher Hartmann & Breitkopf to the version published in 1834. Today, in the UK, it is still known as ‘The Hebrides’.
The Hebrides is in sonata form, its first subject, suggesting the deep feelings of loneliness and solitude that Fingal’s cave evokes, announced right at the beginning in B minor; the second subject, depicting rolling waves, is in the relative (D) major, followed by a development section, recapitulation and coda. Moving from B minor to D major and then to F sharp minor in the opening six bars gives a wild, stark feeling to the music suggesting a primitive, bleak beauty. Mendelssohn, the arch master of counterpoint, would normally have avoided this sequence, but here, blatantly, he was unfettered and released himself from convention.
The overture was, true to form, revised by the composer, particularly the middle section which Mendelssohn called “… stupid … (savouring) more of counterpoint than of oil and seagulls and dead fish …”. Without knowing about that intentional musical reference to oil, seagulls and fish, the listener can be forgiven for simply visualising an idylle, seeing with the inner eye the swell, storms and indeed calm of the ocean and the rocks and cave of the isle hewn by immeasurable inner volcanic forces but now fixed, a monument to their violent history. However, the steamships were filthy beasts and there was no environmental lobby to object to the slicks of oil that accompanied them through the Caledonian canal and beyond. The oil and steamboat propellers were fatal to wildlife including the fish and, inevitably, the birdlife, too. It was this that Felix was alluding to when revising the middle section of his overture.
The final version was ready for its first performance in London at the Philharmonic Society on 14th May, 1832, conducted by Thomas Attwood. The concert also featured Mendelssohn's ‘Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream’. The final revision was completed by 20 June, 1832, and premiered on 10 January, 1833, in Berlin under the composer's own baton.