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Program Notes & Synopses

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Mendelssohn: Ruy Blas Overture

Mendelssohn: Ruy Blas Overture


433 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2015 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Ruy Blas Overture, op. 95
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Composed March 1839. First performance: March 11, 1839, Leipzig.

On March 18, 1839, Felix Mendelssohn wrote a letter to his mother catching her up on some recent news, including the story of a piece he’d just written:

You want to know how it went with my overture for Ruy Blas? Funny story... Six to eight weeks ago, a request came to me from the Theater Pension Fund (a really good and charitable institution here that was producing a benefit performance of Ruy Blas) to write an overture and a song to be included in the play, because they expected they would see better sales if my name was advertised above the title. I read the play, which was so absolutely ghastly and beyond contempt that you wouldn’t even believe it, and I decided that I didn’t have time to compose an overture and would only give them the song.

The performance was supposed to be Monday (eight days ago). On the previous Tuesday, the people came to me, thanked me profusely for the song, and said that it was too bad that I hadn’t written the overture. But they said they realize that one needs time to write a piece like that, and that next year they would try to give me more notice. That rankled me. I gave it some thought that evening and began my score. Wednesday was rehearsal all morning, Thursday a concert, but I still had the overture to the copyist early on Friday, rehearsed it Monday first three times in the concert hall, then once in the theater, and then that evening the infamous piece was performed, and it was all so much more fun than I’ve ever had writing one of my pieces. On the next concert, we performed it again by request; I didn’t call it the “Overture to Ruy Blas”, though, but the “Overture for the Theater Pension Fund”.

As one might expect of something written so quickly, the Ruy Blas Overture (despite Mendelssohn’s hatred of Victor Hugo’s play, the title stuck) stays close to convention. It’s structured in standard sonata form: after opening chords, two themes (one angry and one more quiet and tense) are stated, developed, restated, and the piece ends with a coda. Mendelssohn’s compositional virtuosity is still evident despite the last-minute nature of its genesis, and the overture is a skillfully composed example of an early romantic concert overture which serves as an excellent curtain-raiser.

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