Fingal’s Cave: Mendelssohn Creates a Mood

My students often associate pieces of classical music with old cartoons. Whether I am teaching a lesson about Rossini, Liszt, or Wagner, a student will invariably mention Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, or Elmer Fudd. I love those old cartoons, but if I took things too seriously, I might take exception to how the beauty and originality of some music has been lost in comic images. However, a little satire should never be able to ruin a great piece of music, and I'll therefore refer you to Listverse for the 10 Best Uses of Classical Music in Cartoons. There’s no doubt that each cartoon on the list is a gem, and you can't go wrong with the music.

Five cartoons not placed on the list (most likely due to embarrassing racial stereotypes) come from the “Inki and the Minah Bird” series from Warner Brothers. In each of the five cartoons, a myna bird strolls across the screen, periodically hopping to the music. And what is the music that accompanies that bird's stroll? It’s the Hebrides Overture composed by Felix Mendelssohn. I'd like to use the rest of this blog not to discuss old cartoons, but instead to honor Mendelssohn by discussing the Hebrides Overture.

Mendelssohn was a German composer who visited Scotland when he was twenty years old. He was so charmed by what he saw on his trip that he was inspired to compose two pieces that are now recognized as musical masterworks: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor (the "Scottish” Symphony) and the Hebrides Overture. You might want to explore the "Scottish" Symphony on your own. However, if you'd like to know something about the Hebrides, just keep reading.

The Hebrides archipelago is a group of islands off the western coast of Scotland. Staffa is one of those islands, its name coming from an old Norse word for column or staff. The island is less than a mile wide and contains a series of basalt columns that surround a cave on the southeastern corner of the island. The cave is called Fingal’s Cave and is named for a mythical hero who took refuge on the island.

Hebrides Overture — also known as The Lonely Island, The Isle of Fingal, or Fingal’s Cave — is piece of program music that doesn’t tell a story about the island and its cave as much as it creates a mood. When listening to the music you should hear the murmuring of the waves, as well as the water crashing on the rocks as it ebbs back and forth. You should also sense the loneliness and the beauty of the cave. The cave has been called “the cave of music,” and the main theme for the piece came to Mendelssohn as he sat in a boat looking at the cave and listening to the water hit its walls. When asked about the "story" for the Hebrides Overture, Mendelssohn said, “It cannot be told, only played.”

I have embedded two videos below. One shows Fingal's Cave and the other shows the Beethoven Academy Orchestra performing the
Hebrides Overture. Follow the outline I have provided while listening to the orchestra and think about the majesty of the cave on Staffa Island. Listen for the constant ebb and flow of the water that leads to a climax, as if a storm had hit the island. Rest assured that all ends well with Mendelssohn providing a calm acceptance of nature’s majesty. Much more interesting than a hopping myna bird, I'd say.

A look at Staffa Island and Fingal’s Cave

Mendelssohn, Hebrides Overture (1829)
performed by Michael Dworzynski conducting the Beethoven Academy Orchestra

Follow the outline below while listening to the Beethoven Academy Orchestra playing the Hebrides Overture: (Note: The Hebrides Overture was composed in sonata form.

0:00 — Theme 1
A theme repeated over and over to recreate the murmuring of the waves at the mouth of the cave. Note how the theme is often repeated at a lower dynamic level to represent the echo from within the cave.

1:49 — Theme 2
A theme that rises and falls in pitch and dynamics to represent the waters crashing on rocks and ebbing back to the sea. Some say the theme portrays the inner tranquility of the cave in the midst of the turbulent sea.

2:46 — Closing of the Exposition
Note the change in rhythm (
3:00) that represents the fierceness of the wind and sea.

3:34 — The two themes from the exposition are developed and expanded. Note how the themes advance and retreat like water hitting the cave. Listen for the calmness (4:27) preceding the foreboding of a storm (4:52) that eventually hits the island with full fury (6:03).

6:31 — Theme 1

7:21 — Theme 2

8:38 — Coda
A closing to the piece that portrays the turbulence, as well as the majesty, of nature before fading into silence (