One of the most important Mendelssohn autographs ever to appear at auction. An autograph of impeccable provenance, having been acquired by the great pianist Rudolf Serkin and presented to Toscanini towards the end of his life.
Considered by Mendelssohn as one of his best works, the Melusine overture is a masterpiece in the mould of his other great 'fairy-tale' composition, the Midsummer Night's Dream overture.
It is a staple of the orchestral repertory and a central work in the history of nineteenth-century programmatic concert music.
The autograph, whose whereabouts were recorded as unknown in the 2009 Thematic Catalogue of Mendelssohn's Works (MWV), has hitherto been inaccessible to modern Mendelssohn scholarship.
A new genre of nineteenth-century instrumental music was inaugurated by Mendelssohn with his four great concert overtures (Sommernachtstraum, Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, Die Hebriden and Melusine) written between 1825 and 1835. Freestanding, one-movement symphonic works, without a functional connection to any stage work, they stand as important precursors of the Romantic tone poem and other forms of Romantic instrumental music. Consider only in this regard the famous undulating prelude to Wagner's Das Rheingold - a direct descendant indeed of Mendelssohn's Melusine overture, whose exquisitely crafted and bewitching watery imagery make it one of the finest of all Romantic 'aquarelles', less tumultuous on the whole than the 'Hebrides' overture, but in no way less expressive.
Mendelssohn's magical overture came into being as a result of a performance of the German composer and conductor Conradin Kreutzer's opera Melusina at the Berlin Königsstädtisches Theater which Mendelssohn attended at the end of February 1833. Felix described his reactions to the latter's overture and the genesis of his own in characteristically frank terms thus:
...The overture...was encored, and I disliked it exceedingly, and the whole opera quite as much; but not Mlle. Hähnel, who was very fascinating, especially in one scene, where she appeared as a mermaid combing her hair; this inspired me with the wish to write an overture which the people might not encore, but the value of which would be more intrinsic; so I selected the portion of the subject that pleased me (exactly corresponding with the legend), and, in short, the overture came into the world, and this is its pedigree [letter to his sister Fanny, of 4 April 1834]...
The libretto for the opera, by Grillparzer, had originally been offered, unsuccessfully, to no less a composer than Beethoven. Its subject was a tale going back to the Middle Ages, one which tells of the fair Melusine - a forerunner of Dvorak's Rusalka and Henze's Ondine - who falls in love with the knight Raimund, and who must leave him once a week and change into a mermaid. In his overture Mendelssohn does not attempt to provide a continuous commentary on the story, which sees Melusine return at the end to the sea, after Raimund breaks a vow and observes her fishy transformation: rather he captures the characteristic and contrasting elements of the central figures. (When Schumann, in a review, fancied he heard in the music red coral, green sea monsters and magic palaces, such a reading was emphatically dismissed by Mendelssohn as 'fabulous nonsense' and 'stupid stuff'.) And so the undulating quaver motive which begins the work, in the clarinets, and which permeates the whole overture, as well as the mesmeric trochaic rhythms of its continuation and the gentle major-key harmonic pace, symbolizes in highly evocative fashion Melusine's watery domain. The agitations of Raimund's human world are conveyed in dramatic, sforzando-rich F minor music, bristling with menacing arpeggio figures and aggressive hammer-beat rhythms. This binary alternation, which characterizes the exposition section of the work, also marks out the development and recapitulation: a most ingenious manipulation of the underlying sonata form by Mendelssohn in order to reflect the work's dual preoccupation with the supernatural and the world of reality; a coda reflects Melusine's final metamorphosis, as musically the piece returns to its briny beginnings. A particular highlight of this marvellous score, however, is the yearning, lyrical theme - one of the most expressive Mendelssohn ever wrote - which is first presented in A flat, over diaphanous tremolos, and which also suffers various 'sea changes': this is the music of the lovers, or perhaps of Melusine's human form.
Sketching of the work may have followed soon after Mendelssohn heard Kreutzer's opera; Peter Ward Jones has suggested that a first draft of the work may have been in existence already by April 1833, i.e. at the time of Felix's third visit to England. However, the writing of the score probably did not take place until the autumn of 1833, being finished for his sister Fanny's birthday on 14 November of that year. The first performance of the work took place in London, under the auspices of the Philharmonic Society, with Ignaz Moscheles conducting (stodgily, by all accounts), on 7 April 1834. An unexpectedly cool reception by the London audience, as reported to the composer by his friend Carl Klingemann (letter of 22 April 1834), led the composer to make a substantial revision of the score in the autumn of 1835: the present autograph documents this revision in extraordinary detail. In this ultimate form, on 23 November 1835, only six days after the closing date on the autograph, the overture received its première at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where Mendelssohn had recently taken up his position as director. With this revision Mendelssohn was clearly very satisfied, as a letter of the composer to Carl Klingemann, dated 14 December 1835, makes plain: "it is now, however, incomparably better than it was, and sounds probably the best of all my pieces". These views are echoed too in a later letter, dated 30 January 1836, to the composer's sister: "Many persons here consider "Melusina" to be my best overture; at all events, it is the most deeply felt". Publication of the score by Breitkopf & Härtel as Konzert-Ouverture No.4, Op.32, followed later in 1836 (the full scores of Mendelssohn's Op.21 (Sommernachtstraum), Op.26 (Die Hebriden), and Op.27 (Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt) had been published, in first edition, as the concert overtures nos.1-3 in 1835).
In addition to the present score, the following autograph material relating to the Melusine overture survives: the autograph score of the early version, dated 14 November 1833, 350 bars [Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz, mit Mendelssohn-Archiv, Mus. ms. autogr. F. Mendelssohn Bartholdy 50]; and the autograph of an arrangement for piano four hands, final version [Archiv der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien, Mus. A 198]. The present autograph, however, is the most important of all the sources for the work, documenting as it does Mendelssohn's struggle to achieve the overture's final form; it also acted as the Stichvorlage for the first edition of the score, and of the parts. It diverges considerably from the early form of the overture, both in larger and smaller details - one striking large detail being the fact that it is longer than the earlier score by some 56 bars. The differences between the two versions are evident from the very first bar: in the earlier score the initial wave motive lacks its crotchet upbeat, and the clarinet's first statement is answered in more diffuse fashion by viola and violin, instead of - in magical fashion in the final version - by the flute. One particularly remarkable detail in the present autograph concerns Mendelssohn's pencil annotation to b.386 on p.43, apparently an instruction to himself to rewrite the closing passage in all instruments from that bar ("...von diesem Tact an muß der Schluß in sämmtlichen Instrumenten umgeschrieben werden...").
Shortly after completing the score, Mendelssohn resolved, on the advice of his father, to 'hang upon a nail' the fairy-tale subjects that had for some time chiefly preoccupied him, in order that he might turn his mind to more 'serious' compositions. The full scale of the loss to posterity that resulted from the composer's compliance with his father's lamentable advice may be judged by contemplation of the perfection of the present work - a tone-poem of the finest order by the nineteenth century's most fastidious exponent of musical Romanticism.
Toscanini was an inspired conductor of Mendelssohn throughout his long career. On 1 November 1947, as part of the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the composer's death, Toscanini directed the NBC Symphony Orchestra at NBC's Studio 8-H at Rockefeller Center in New York in an hour-long broadcast concert dedicated to his music: the very first piece on the programme was the Melusine overture.