Mendelssohn : Die Erste WalpurgisnachtHamburgo, 2008 (Audio)
Director: Thomas Hengelbrock
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Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night) is a secular cantata for soloists (alto, tenor, baritone, bass), choir and orchestra written by Felix Mendelssohn.
The words are taken from a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Mendelssohn completed an initial version in 1831. It was extensively revised and published as his opus 60 in 1843.
It is scored for alto, tenor, baritone, and bass solos, mixed choir, and orchestra. The text tells a story of trying to practice pagan rituals of the Druids in the Harz mountains in the face of new and dominating Christian forces. The composition itself consists of ten specific movements:
Es lacht der Mai (May is in full bloom) Tenor & chorus of Druids & people.
Kōnnt ihr so verwegen handeln? (Could you be so rash, so daring?) Alto, old woman, & chorus of wives of the people.
Wer Opfer heut zu bringen scheut (Whoever fears to sacrifice) Baritone, priest, & chorus of Druids.
Verteilt euch, wackre Mānner, hier (Divide your forces, valiant men) Chorus of Druid watchmen.
Diese dummen Pfaffenchristen (Christians and their priests are witless) Bass, watchman, & chorus of watchmen.
Kommt mit Zacken und mit Gabeln (Come with prongs and pitchforks) Chorus of Druids and people.
So weit gebracht, dass wir bei Nacht (It's come so far that now by night) Baritone, priest, & chorus of Druids and people.
Hilf, ach hilf mir, Kriegsgeselle (Help, oh help me, comrade) Tenor & chorus of Christian watchmen.
Die Flamme reinigt sich vom Rauch (The flame is purified by smoke) Baritone, priest, & chorus of Druids and people.
Goethe wrote this text to be set to music, intending it for his friend Carl Friedrich Zelter, who tried twice, 1799 & 1812, but did not complete a setting. Mendelssohn, who knew Goethe, first took it up in 1830 before completing it 13 years later; it was first performed in Leipzig, February 2, 1843.
The story is how a prank allows for a local tradition to take place in spite of opposition from an intolerant new regime. The Druids and local heathen would celebrate May Day, but, as a women's chorus warns, this is now forbidden. The Druid priests counter that those who fear to sacrifice deserve their chains. A comic solution emerges as a Druid watchman suggests a masquerade of the Devil, spirits, and demons to frighten the occupying Christians. The Christians are scared away. And the Druids and heathen are left to celebrate Spring and the Sun.
The attractions of this text for Mendelssohn likely were the ghost scene (compare his incidental music to Midsummer Night's Dream) and the triumph (by guile) of an oppressed group in an occupied land, an important Enlightenment idea.
Hanno Müller Brachmann