Sunday, September 6, 2009

Mendelssohn's Melusina: Not Exactly the Little Mermaid

One of Mendelssohn's concert works in an overture inspired by an ancient legend of a young water sprite or mermaid-like nymph who longs to experience human love.

The legend of Melusina or Undine goes back to the 14th Century (in some forms to the 10th Century) and has appeared in many variations.

Water sprites were believed to inhabit the streams and lakes of central Europe and Russia since pagan times.

In this story, the fair Melusina, from her home under the water of a river, spies a handsome prince and falls in love with him. Normally, a water sprite is not allowed contact with humans but she manages to be allowed to appear like a mortal human. However, she must return to her original shape once a week if she is to survive.

She meets her handsome prince and he falls in love with her. They marry but she places one condition on him: she must be allowed one day a week of complete privacy. He agrees.

Naturally, his curiosity gets the best of him and he spies on her on her “day off.” When he discovers that she goes down to the river and returns to her water sprite form, he is angered by her deception. Having been found out, she now must return to her home in the river, her heart broken, never to take human shape again.

There are other versions of the tale but this is the one that inspired Mendelssohn's music in 1833 when he was 24 years old.

It is also the basis for the fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen who added various details which in turn inspired the Walt Disney animated film. (The illustration (right) is of the famous Little Mermaid Statue in the harbor of Copenhagen, Denmark, home of Hans Christian Andersen.)

In Mendelssohn's music, you can hear the watery accompaniment of Melusina's music at the opening. The fanfare-like music is associated with the Prince – or with her human form – and you can hear the constant contrast and growing conflict between these two themes. At the end, it is Melusina's music that trails off as she, apparently, swims away. It almost sounds like she's not all that sad about it, after all.

This video is not be much of a video since the audio is accompanied with slides of various illustrations of the legend dating back to the Medieval and Renaissance eras, not necessarily associated with Mendelssohn's version of the story, along with a portrait of Mendelssohn and a picture of conductor Claudio Abbado, who conducts this recording with the London Symphony.

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- Dr. Dick