Proceeding across the Highlands, the tourists reached Oban on the western coast. There, on 7 August, Mendelssohn sketched Dunollie Castle, the thirteenth-century stronghold of the MacDougalls, who had fought against Robert the Bruce. The ruins of their castle looked out from a promontory onto Mull and some of the surrounding Hebridean islands. Later that day Mendelssohn and Klingemann boarded a steamer to the fishing village of Tobermory, on the northern coast of Mull, and that evening the composer gathered his impressions in another letter to Berlin: ‘In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, the following came into my mind there.’ The ‘following’ was a musical sketch, in piano score but with detailed orchestral cues, of the opening of the overture The Hebrides, also known as the Fingal’s Cave overture, in nearly its finished form. Here we find the familiar, rocking bass motif, sequentially transposed in a rising pattern, with sustained wind chords in the treble. Transposing visual memories of the day into sounding images, Mendelssohn indulged in synaesthesia, so that sight became sound in a finely nuanced display of romantic tone painting.
Significantly, his original musical inspiration for the overture was triggered by his visual impressions from Oban, not by his celebrated visit to Fingal’s Cave, on the tiny, windswept island of Staffa, six miles off the western coast of Mull. That event occurred the following day, 8 August. The seas were gentle enough for the tourists to land and clamber into the cave, but not calm enough for Mendelssohn to jot down further musical impressions, or to climb atop the island, as the poet Keats had in 1818. Succumbing to queasiness, Mendelssohn deferred to Klingemann, who sent this description to Berlin: ‘Staffa, with its strange basalt pillars and caverns, is in all the picture books. We were put out in boats and lifted by the hissing sea up the pillar stumps to the famous Fingal’s Cave. A greener roar of waves never rushed into a stranger cavern—its many pillars making it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide grey sea within and without.’
Not until December 1830 was Mendelssohn able to date a finished score of the overture, and he did so in Rome, well removed from nebulous Scottish seascapes. But, as was the case with most of his major works, the overture fell victim to the composer’s Revisionskrankheit, and he laboured over retouching the music for the next few years. With each reworking, Mendelssohn changed the title, first to Ouvertüre zur einsamen Insel (Overture to the Solitary Island), then to The Isles of Fingal for the first English performance in 1832, before finally releasing the work in print in 1835 as Fingals Höhle (Fingal’s Cave). An early performance in Leipzig was announced as Ossian in Fingals Höhle, linking the music and Staffa to one of the great literary forgeries of all time—the Ossianic poems passed off by James MacPherson in the 1760s as authentic fragments of ancient Celtic poetry.
Like all great music, Mendelssohn’s overture admits multiple interpretations. One can hear it in purely musical terms as an understated movement in modified sonata form, with three climaxes positioned near the end of the exposition, end of the development, and in the coda. In programmatic terms, one can interpret the overture as a musical depiction of Scottish seascapes and landscapes, or perhaps reflecting Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, partially set on Ellen’s Island, a ‘solitary’ island in Loch Katrine in the Trossachs. Or, shifting to Fingal’s Cave, one can imagine the distant military exploits of Fingal, as depicted in the Ossianic poems, an allusion that might well explain the military fanfares in the brass and winds that briefly come to the fore in the overture.
from notes by R Larry Todd © 2012