Friday, September 4, 2009

Into the Magic World of Fingal's Cave

I'd used these two videos in an earlier post, but I want to post them here again in a slightly different context.

We can't really take a field trip to a little island off the coast of Scotland to see what Felix Mendelssohn saw when he was 20, sailing up to the mouth of this big cave in the Hebrides Islands.

The place is called “Fingal's Cave,” facing out to the stark northern sea of the Atlantic Ocean.

But second hand, you can – courtesy of a tourist who posted this YouTube video. It probably hasn't changed much in the 180 years since Mendelssohn saw it and wrote down a musical idea that became an overture known as “The Hebrides” or “Fingal's Cave.”

It's a weird place – in the photograph above, see the strange column-like rocks? It looks like the carved columns you might see in a cathedral (see photograph, left, of the inside of Salisbury Cathedral in England). This is the way ancient lava cooled: it's not carved by man.

Inside the cave, it's like a cathedral where the waves from the sea echo and roar.

The original Gaelic name for the Cave means “Cave of Melody.”

Listen to the sound of the waves. When the tour-boat arrives and the walk into the cave, somebody's playing bagpipes inside. Around 3:00 into the video, the high tide starts coming in and the waves begin to rise. See how they rise and swirl? What kind of sound do they make?

At 5:07, the cameraman is inside the cave, looking out to the sea. Listen to the waves.

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How would you translate that sound into music?

This is how Mendelssohn turned his experience, visiting that strange and magical place, into a piece of music.

This is the musical version of “Fingal's Cave” played by a student orchestra in Belgium and in this video what you see is the orchestra and the conductor from a fixed point in the back. But listen to how the music in the lowest sounds you hear reflects the sounds of the waves you saw in the first video.

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Now, turn off the volume on the first video, the one taken at the cave, and skip ahead to about 3:00 into it. Let the first video play silently and watch it while you listen to the audio from the orchestra playing the piece of music that was inspired by standing in that very same cave and listening to those waves roll in and out almost 200 years ago.

- Dr. Dick