Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 April 2011
In art, literature, theatre and music, Victorians demonstrated increased interest in the supernatural and nostalgia for a lost mythic time, a response to rapid technological change and increased urbanization. Romanticism generated a new regard for Shakespeare, also fuelled by British nationalism. The immortal bard's plays began to receive theatrical performances that more accurately presented their original texts, partially remedying the mutilations of the previous century. The so-called ‘fairy’ plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, were also popular subjects for fairy paintings, stemming from the establishment of the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in 1789. In such a context, it is no wonder that Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream was so overwhelmingly popular in England and that his style became closely associated with the idea of fairies. This article explores how the Victorians’ understanding of fairies and how the depiction of fairies in the theatre and visual arts of the period influenced the reception of Mendelssohn's music, contributing to its construction as ‘feminine’. Victorian fairies, from the nude supernatural creatures cavorting in fairy paintings to the diaphanously gowned dancers treading lightly on the boards of the stage, were typically women. In his study of Chopin reception, Jeffrey Kallberg has interpreted fairies as androgynous, but Victorian fairies were predominantly female, so much so that Lewis Spence's 1948 study, The Fairy Tradition in Britain, includes an entire section on fairy gender intended to refute the long-standing notion that there were no male fairies. Thus, for Mendelssohn to have composed the leading musical work that depicted fairies contributed to his increasingly feminized reputation over the course of the nineteenth century.
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