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The Walpurgis Night

Felix Mendelssohn
(1809-47)



It was during his travels in Italy in 1831 that Mendelssohn composed the music to Goethe’s poem, "The First Walpurgis Night." The cantata was first publicly performed in Leipzig, February 2, 1843. The subject is a very simple one. The witches of the Northern mythology were supposed to hold their revels on the summit of the Brocken on the eve of the first of May (Walpurgis Night), and the details of their wild and infernal "Sabbath" are familiar to every reader of "Faust."

The cantata begins with an overture in two movements, an Allegro con fuoco and an Allegro vivace, which describes in vivid tone-colors the passing of the season from winter to spring. The first number is a tenor solo and chorus of Druids, which are full of spring feeling rising to religious fervor in the close. The next number is an alto solo, the warning of an aged woman of the people, which is very dramatic in its style ("Know ye not a Deed so daring"). The warning is followed by a stately exhortation from the Druid priest ("The Man who flies our sacrifice"), leading up to a short chorus of a stirring character in which the Druids resolve to go on with their rites. It is followed by a pianissimo chorus of the guards whispering to each other to ("secure the Passes round the Glen"). One of the them suggests the demon scheme for frightening the enemy, which leads to the chorus ("Come with Torches brightly flashing"). In this chorus the composer has given the freest rein to his fancy, and presents the weird scene in a grotesque chaos of musical effects, both vocal and instrumental, which may fairly be called infernal, although it preserves form and rhythm throughout. It is followed by an exalted and impressive hymn for bass solo and chorus, which is a relief after the diablerie of the preceding number ("Restrained by Might"). Following this impressive hymn comes the terrified warning of the Christian guard (tenor), and the response of his equally terrified comrades ("Help, my Comrades! see a Legion"). As the Christians disappear, scared by the demon ruse, the Druids once more, led by their priest, resume their rites, closing with another choral hymn of praise similar in style to the first.





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