Saturday, 28 June 2014


“The essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.” - Felix Mendelssohn

The ‘Hebrides Overture’, written by the 20 year-old Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, was inspired by his visit to Fingal’s Cave when he was touring Scotland. He sent a letter to his sister Fanny describing his impression of the cave and along with it an autograph of the first several bars of the overture written on 2 staves. Fingal’s Cave is a sea cave on the uninhabited island of Staffa, in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, part of a National Nature Reserve owned by the National Trust for Scotland. It became known as Fingal's Cave after the eponymous hero of an epic poem by 18th-century Scots poet-historian James Macpherson.

The cave is formed entirely from hexagonally jointed basalt columns within a Paleocene lava flow, similar in structure to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and those of nearby Ulva. In all these cases, cooling on the upper and lower surfaces of the solidified lava resulted in contraction and fracturing, starting in a blocky tetragonal pattern and transitioning to a regular hexagonal fracture pattern with fractures perpendicular to the cooling surfaces. Similar hexagonal fracture patterns are found in desiccation cracks in mud where contraction is due to loss of water instead of cooling. Its size and naturally arched roof, and the eerie sounds produced by the echoes of waves, give it the atmosphere of a natural cathedral. The cave’s Gaelic name, An Uaimh Bhinn, means “the melodious cave”.

The first section of the overture explores the cave’s ambience and eerie darkness. The following section where the orchestra plays tutti gives the impression of a raging ocean. The development section introduces a new theme which is very lyrical and in a cantabile style. The recapitulation reintroduces the original theme with some variations and new orchestral colors and the use of a marcato rhythm and is finally followed by a great climax, which is well prepared for in advance and very anticipated. The climax is played tutti in a raging fortissimo with many lines going in different directions but nonetheless balanced perfectly in terms of tone and harmony. Such a dramatic climax calls for a quiet ending where the strings continue to play a couple of pizzicato notes after the rest of the orchestra goes silent.

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