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The union of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy in the form of Die erste Walpurgisnacht was the 19th century's version of the supergroup--the former enjoying literary celebrity since the age of 25, the latter a child prodigy making his concert debut at the age of nine--and constitutes a rare collaboration of contemporaries. The result? A piece rife with dramatic color, of swooping and swirling choral interplay that brings a wild, vivid imagery to the scene.
But it all started in the imagination of Goethe. He created an anachronistic cast of Druids and pitchfork- and fire-bearing heathens as the foil to a Christian guard bent on keeping them from pagan springtime rituals in his 1799 poem, Die erste Walpurgisnacht. The piece, intended to be set to music from the start, found its way after a few false starts into the hands of a young Mendelssohn by way of a mutual friend, Carl Friederich Zelter.
"It's Mendelssohn at his best," says Dr. Matthew Lewis, artistic director and conductor of St. George's Choral Society. "It's a fun and very satisfying piece to sing, full of whimsy and charm." He notes the descriptions of bewitched bodies and howling werewolves scored as choral dialogue, which make it rich with dramatic color and showcases Mendelssohn's refined technique.
Dr. Lewis describes Mendelssohn as "a class act--sophisticated and fine, but never showy," and hails him as a Renaissance man. "He was a composer, a painter, a performer and a scholar. Imagine what he would have accomplished had he lived past the age of 38!" The dexterous, transparent score requires a seasoned and mature group of singers adept at handling a multitude of words, and the Society has been hard at work mastering the nuances since late January. "It's all about the words--words, words, words… with no repeat," says Dr. Lewis. "It's a challenge we’re ready to take on."
The Society, one of the oldest extant choirs in Manhattan, will be performing this meeting of the romantic minds in a celebration of spring of their own. The afternoon of Mendelssohn with orchestra includes the composer's Lieder for Choir, Opus 59, performed by the St. George's Chamber Singers, and opens with the overture to his score for A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Join St. George's Choral society for an early celebration of Walpurgis Night on Sunday, April 14 at 3 PM at Church of the Incarnation, Madison Avenue at 35th Street. Tickets are $25, available at the door, or $20 with advance purchase at www.stgeorgeschoralsociety.org. St. George's Choral Society's Spring 2013 concert, "The Music of Mendelssohn," is made possible in part with public funds from the Manhattan Community Arts Fund, supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
Background on this article was built from articles from Wikipedia: Felix Mendelssohn, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Die erste Walpurgistnacht; and Notes on Die ertste Walpurgisnacht by Diane Rettalack, Eugene Concert Choir Artistic Director and Executive Director.
Alisun Armstrong is a copywriter and soprano living in Queens who loves to bake birthday cakes. You can see some of her non-edible--but award-winning-work--at onpage9.com/alisuna.