Midsummer is a time for music. Also for weddings.
At Stonehenge, yesterday’s sunrise was greeted not just by hundreds of people holding cellphones raised in salute of the dawn’s first rays, but with singing and dancing.
While many were intent on capturing the event with their iPhones, others simply celebrated with song the older technology of the stone circle itself.
Across the North Sea, the Danes, looking for a boost after their national soccer team played to a draw against the Australian side (their fans were marking midwinter Down Under), gathered in the evening around bonfires on Baltic beaches and sang of the love for their country. Recently graduated high school students fed their binders of notes and graded assignments to the flames. In this way, the protocols of the modern world are momentarily overthrown by misrule and mayhem.
The Europeans who conquered North America tried to stamp out such ancient paganisms. We don’t really do Midsummer. John Calvin fulminated against solstice revels, as did Martin Luther, who for centuries after the Reformation was burned in effigy in catholic southern Germany on Midsummer, which happens to fall on the Feast of St. John.
In contrast to their puritanical colonizers, American natives marked the solstice with song and dance. The Sioux encircled a sacred poplar tree for their sun-gazing litany. No music celebrates more vividly the year’s longest day.
Calendrically, it is now summer, the nuptial season. The coincidence of fecundity rites with the arrival of the sun at its northernmost point finds madcap manifestation in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which culminates in a triple wedding.
More than two centuries later the play inspired one of the most famous pieces of music not just for Midsummer, but in the entire classical canon: Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. I’d estimate that more than half the couples I’ve played the organ for in thirty years of wedding work choose this mainstay of the repertoire as their recessional.
The March was composed in 1842 as the penultimate number of the incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s play. The composition was commissioned by the theatre-loving Prussian monarch, Friedrich Wilhelm IV.
It was sixteen years later, and more than a decade after Mendelssohn’s death, that the March moved from the stage to the church and attained the celebratory it has yet to relinquish. Friedrich Wilhelm’s nephew—the king himself was childless—was also called Friedrich Wilhelm and married Queen Victoria’s eldest child, also called Victoria. The service was held in the Chapel Royal at St. James’ Palace in 1858 — not in the summer but in January. Might young Fritz’s uncle have suggested Mendelssohn’s march as the culmination of the celebration, not only because of the piece’s rousing strains but also because it provided a German musical seal for the Anglo-Prussian alliance cemented by the wedding. In the service, Mendelssohn’s recessional came quick on the heels of the Hallelujah Chorus, the work of another German-English emissary, George Frideric Handel. Like Handel, Mendelssohn was beloved of the British.
Thanks to the royal imprimatur, Mendelssohn’s recessional became an immediate favorite across Britain and its overseas territories. Unlike the empire, the sun has never set on this Midsummer March.
Even the Nazis couldn’t stamp it out. Disgusted by the durable popularity of the March and the rest of Mendelssohn’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s play even in the years following Hitler’s takeover, officials from Goebbel’s Reich Chamber of Cultural unsuccessfully attempted to persuade a number of leading German composers to devise an alternative to a work now pilloried as “moonlight and sugar water.” Only Carl Orff eventually agreed to the commission, but his Aryan alternative was never heard in public as the Frankfurt Opera where it was to have been premiered was bombed just before the 1944 performance.
However overused Mendelssohn’s March has been in the century-and-a-half since its conquest of world wedding culture, one can nonetheless understand its enduring appeal.
Set in glorious C Major, the march does not begin there, even though the tonic note is heard at the top of vast opening sonority that stretches from high flutes, oboes, clarinets, and violins down to thunderous Ophicleides and Bass Trombones. Instead, Mendelssohn begins with a harmony whose root is on F-sharp (as far away from C as you can get). From here, he glances off B Major, a half-step away from the tonic (i.e., the home key)—seemingly very close, but actually far distant from the controlling tonality. Mendelssohn then superimposes this B-major chord (adding to it an even-more energizing seventh) as a bracing dissonance over an E in all those stentorian basses, before pivoting to a rousing cadential flourish to C Major. The melody supported by these serpentine harmonies likewise veers out of C Major before descending emphatically to the home pitch an octave below. He does so in just two eventful measures. With these ecstatic feints, Mendelssohn breathlessly evokes the sensual joys awaiting the couple.
It is ironic that Mendelssohn’s March begins on a so-called half-diminished chord—the definitive Wagnerian harmony. Wagner uses it to modulate promiscuously: for him it is the sonic incarnation of forbidden desire. Mendelssohn’s opening chord has none of that furtive quality, but is instead unashamedly celebratory.
This irony is compounded by the fact that most brides still walk down the aisle to Wagner’s Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin. That opera was premiered in 1850, the same year the composer published his anti-semitic essay, Jewishness in Music. Among its many infamies, Wagner’s screed takes aim at Mendelssohn in convoluted, self-serving pronouncements of feigned sympathy. The turgid prose is hard to take: “The wishy-washy, whimsical quality of our present musical style has been, if not exactly brought about, yet pushed to its utmost pitch by Mendelssohn’s endeavor to speak out a vague, an almost nugatory content.”
It is an unlikely marriage of convenience, Wagner’s march kicking off most American weddings and Mendelssohn’s concluding it. The pair eye each other warily from either side of the aisle, like mutually suspicious fathers (or mothers)-in-law.
Whereas Mendelssohn stipulated jubilant forte for his march, Wagner called for a hushed piano drawing down to still more muted pianissimo when, in the second stanza, the chorus sings of the “sweet smelling room decorated for love” (Duftender Raum, zur Liebe geschmückt). Later, after he’d become financially successful, the former-revolutionary Wagner would compose in a room adorned with sumptuous fabrics, and would put on women’s stockings and continually spritz the air with expensive french perfume.
No bride would now countenance an entrance done on the quiet rather than with full organ, and few would likely want to know that the Lohengrin chorus was the work of a cross-dresser. Perhaps such gender-bending genius will be seen to add flair to the weddings of the future.
Whatever the case, the Wagner-Mendelssohn pairing seems unlikely to end in divorce any time soon. Still, I hear opposing forces, like night and day, in these wedding warhorses pulling at the same carriage. With a weekend on the organ bench ahead, I am reminded that midsummer can be both a moment of celebration and of melancholy: on the summer solstice one thinks of the shortening days ahead and even of December’s darkness. More Mendelssohn, less Wagner!