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Victorian Fairies and Felix Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream in England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 April 2011

Marian Wilson Kimber
The University of Iowa


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.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2007

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1 Two substantial studies of the various cultural ramifications of the Victorian obsession with fairies are Silver, Carole G., Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)Google Scholar and Bown, Nicola, Fairies in Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)Google Scholar . See also Purkiss, Diane, ‘Victorian Fairies’, in At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, and Other Troublesome Things (New York: New York University Press, 2001): 220–64Google Scholar.

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4 An excellent, succinct summary of Mendelssohn's changing reputation is found in Todd, R. Larry, Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003): xix–xxviiGoogle Scholar . Extensive treatment of posthumous criticism in Germany and England, with numerous period writings, is found in Brown, Clive, A Portrait of Mendelssohn (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003): 447500CrossRefGoogle Scholar . On Mendelssohn's relationship to England, see Krummacher, Friedhelm, ‘Composition as Accommodation? On Mendelssohn's Music in Relation to England’, in Mendelssohn Studies, ed. Todd, R. Larry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992): 80105Google Scholar . See Temperley's, Nicholasrefutation of the idea that Mendelssohn's style dominated English music in ‘Mendelssohn's Influence on English Music’, Music & Letters 43 (1962): 224–33Google Scholar.

5 See Kimber, Marian Wilson, ‘The Composer as Other: Gender and Race in the Biography of Felix Mendelssohn’, The Mendelssohns: Their Music in History, ed. Cooper, John Michael and Prandi, Julie (London: Oxford University Press, 2003): 335–44.Google Scholar

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10 In The Savoy 8 (Dec. 1896): 63, reprinted in Reade, Brian, Beardsley (London: Studio Vista, 1967): n.pGoogle Scholar.

11 See Kimber, Wilson, ‘Composer as Other’: 344–9.Google Scholar

12 Christa Jost has suggested that the women to whom Mendelssohn dedicated the Lieder ohne Worte were all accomplished pianists, even if most of them were not professional musicians. See Mendelssohns Lieder ohne Worte (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1988): 5563Google Scholar.

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15 The first English performance took place at the Argyle Rooms on 24 June (Midsummer Night) at a concert of flautist Louis François Philippe Drouet, where it was encored. It was played there again on 13 July at a benefit for Silesian flood victims. George Smart conducted a third performance by the Philharmonic on 1 March 1830. Todd, R. Larry, Mendelssohn: The Hebrides and other Overtures, Cambridge Music Handbooks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993): 17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 Foster, Myles Birket, History of the Philharmonic Society of London (London: John Lane, 1912): 570–71Google Scholar . Typically programmed were the Overture, Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March.

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23 15 Mar. [1841], quoted in Chorley, Henry, Recent Art and Society as Described in the Autobiography and Memoirs of Henry Fothergill Chorley, ed. Hewlett, Henry G. and Jones, C.H. (New York: Holt, 1873): 171–2Google Scholar.

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