Conducted by Paavo Järvi, the hr-Sinfonieorchester (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra) performs “Ouvertüre zum Märchen von der schönen Melusine” (Overture to the Legend of the Fair Melusine), also known as “Die schöne Melusine”, Op. 32 (MWV P 12), a concert overture by Felix Mendelssohn written in 1833. Recorded during the Eröffnungskonzert Rheingau Music Festival 2014 at the Eberbach Abbey (German: Kloster Eberbach), a former Cistercian monastery near Eltville am Rhein in the Rheingau, Germany.
Felix Mendelssohn’s Ouvertüre zum Märchen von der schönen Melusine
Felix Mendelssohn’s “Ouvertüre zum Märchen von der schönen Melusine,” Op. 32, also known as “Das Märchen von der schönen Melusine”, “Die schöne Melusine” or “The Fair Melusine” in English, is a concert overture composed in 1834. This piece is loosely based on the legend of Melusine, a water nymph who marries Count Raymond under the condition that he never enters her room on Saturdays when she takes the form of a mermaid. The legend was well-known in 19th-century Germany through retellings by Ludwig Tieck and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.
Mendelssohn composed this overture as a birthday gift for his sister Fanny. His inspiration came from seeing Conradin Kreutzer’s opera “Melusina” in Berlin, which he disliked but was motivated by a scene featuring a mermaid, which led him to create his own musical interpretation. Interestingly, Mendelssohn did not aim to closely reflect the story in his music, a point he emphasized when he dryly described the piece as “a misalliance”.
The overture, which is broadly in sonata form, was first performed in London by the Philharmonic Society orchestra, conducted by Ignaz Moscheles. The initial reception was polite but not overly enthusiastic, leading Mendelssohn to revise the piece. The revised version, published in 1836, was described by a contemporary German reviewer as not attempting to translate the entire tale into musical language but rather to evoke the emotional worlds of the characters through the “dreamworld of harmonic power”.
The piece stands out in Mendelssohn’s oeuvre for its narrative and emotive content, displaying his ability to create musical landscapes that evoke the essence of literary sources while maintaining his distinct musical voice.
A performance of Conradin Kreutzer’s opera Melusina in Berlin (which libretto was by Franz Grillparzer and was originally designed for a setting by Ludwig van Beethoven) suggested Mendelssohn to write its own overture on the substance.
Mendelssohn’s piece dealt with the myth of the legendary figure Melusine (a figure of European folklore, a feminine spirit of fresh waters in sacred springs and rivers). The most famous literary version of Melusine tales, that of Jean d’Arras, compiled about 1382–1394, was worked into a collection of “spinning yarns” as told by ladies at their spinning. Coudrette (Couldrette) wrote The Romans of Partenay or of Lusignen: Otherwise known as the Tale of Melusine, giving source and historical notes, dates, and background of the story. He goes into detail and depth about the relationship of Melusine and Raymondin, their initial meeting, and the complete story.
The tale was translated into German in 1456 by Thüring von Ringoltingen, the version of which became popular as a chapbook. It was later translated into English c. 1500 and often printed in both the 15th century and the 16th century. A prose version is entitled the Chronique de la Princesse (Chronicle of the Princess).
It tells how in the time of the Crusades, Elynas, the King of Albany (an old name for Scotland or Alba), went hunting one day and came across a beautiful lady in the forest. She was Pressyne, mother of Melusine. He persuaded her to marry him but she agreed, only on the promise – for there is often a hard and fatal condition attached to any pairing of fay and mortal – that he must not enter her chamber when she birthed or bathed her children. She gave birth to triplets. When he violated this taboo, Pressyne left the kingdom, together with her three daughters, and traveled to the lost Isle of Avalon.
The three girls – Melusine, Melior, and Palatyne – grew up in Avalon. On their fifteenth birthday, Melusine, the eldest, asked why they had been taken to Avalon. Upon hearing of their father’s broken promise, Melusine sought revenge. She and her sisters captured Elynas and locked him, with his riches, in a mountain. Pressyne became enraged when she learned what the girls had done, and punished them for their disrespect to their father. Melusine was condemned to take the form of a serpent from the waist down every Saturday. In other stories, she takes on the form of a mermaid.
Raymond of Poitou came across Melusine in a forest of Coulombiers in Poitou in France and proposed marriage. Just as her mother had done, she laid a condition: that he must never enter her chamber on a Saturday. He broke the promise and saw her in the form of a part-woman, part-serpent, but she forgave him. When, during a disagreement, he called her a “serpent” in front of his court, she assumed the form of a dragon, provided him with two magic rings, and flew off, never to return.
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