There is just something magical about the Summer Solstice, particularly if one gets away from air conditioned rooms and other modern comforts and finds a shady bower in which to lounge. This coming Saturday is the Summer Solstice--or, specifically to many in northern European countries, Midsummer. Solstice celebrations, of course, date to pagan times, and the pagan rituals have often merged with religious ones into festivities that are celebrated today. The idea of Midsummer as a time when magic and romance blended evocatively was not lost on poets--certainly not on William Shakespeare whose A Midsummer Night's Dream oozes with atmosphere. And, to say that Shakespeare's play has influenced other poets, playwrights, and composers, is an understatement.
While still a teenager, Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny read German translations of Shakespeare's plays and grew to love A Midsummer Night's Dream. Spurred by this love, Mendelssohn wrote the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream as a piano duet for himself and his sister to perform, which they reportedly did in November of 1826. He subsequently orchestrated it for a public performance some months later. The composer was but 17 years old at the time of composition and his work is unrivaled even in the rarefied air of precocious composing prodigies.
It was another 16 years, though, before Mendelssohn would return to the subject. In 1843, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV commissioned the composer to write incidental music for a number of plays including A Midsummer Night's Dream. Mendelssohn added 12 sections to his Overture from 16 years earlier; in total, they became the score that we are familiar with today. Although complete performances are done regularly, the typical concert hall version uses five of them: I. Overture, II. Scherzo, III. Intermezzo, IV. Nocturne, and V. Wedding March. (Yes, it is that Wedding March.) The Overture and the later-composed sections comprise a work that is one of the most perfectly evocative, atmospheric masterpieces in music history.
Recordings abound and can be found on YouTube; the downtown Knox County Public Library has CDs of it in their Sights and Sounds department.
I can recommend Mendelssohn: Midsummer Night's Dream (et. al.) with James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon 415137.
Conductor Marin Alsop wrote about the piece for a recent posting in NPRs classical music blog Deceptive Cadence. You can also listen to the Overture at this link.
Special Note: If you love Mendelssohn, mark down March 2015 for a Knoxville Symphony Orchestra performance of his fabulous Symphony No. 3 ("Scottish Symphony") with guest conductor James Feddeck. That same concert will feature pianist Conrad Tao in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 and Rossini's William Tell Overture.