The Fair Melusine is one of Mendelssohn’s less well-known works, but it does help to illustrate the fact that if only the composer had been in a position to designate this and similar works, such as The Hebrides, as Symphonic Poems rather than merely Concert Overtures he would have been thought a pioneer of the genre. Of course The Hebrides ranks with the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a work of complete genius, but Melusine, subtitled The Mermaid and the Knight, has undoubted virtue in conveying a more peaceful seascape and the melodrama of a narrative derived from legend.
The work was commissioned in November of 1832 by the Philharmonic Society of London, which had nurtured a special relationship with Mendelssohn; in fact under the terms of the commission three works were requested for a fee of a hundred guineas, but such was the warmth with which Mendelssohn reciprocated that four were provided, the other major work in the four being the Italian Symphony. Melusine was designed as an overture to an opera by Conradin Kreutzer, a project which had been rejected by Beethoven; unsurprisingly the opera has disappeared without trace.
The plot concerns Melusine, a mermaid, who has the gift of becoming human for most of every week, desiring to taste the pleasures of human life, and marries Knight Raimund on condition that he does not seek her out on a Saturday, the day she reserves for aquatic activity. Eventually, of course, her secret is discovered and Raimund loses her back to the sea; in the original legend the two are reunited in death.
The overture was finished by November 1833 and first performed in London in April 1834, but the response was lukewarm and Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny, also a gifted musician and whose opinion he relied on implicitly, suggested that he could make improvements. By November 1835 he had completed a revision, which is the version in which the work has been heard ever since; Mendelssohn asked the Philharmonic Society to destroy the first version, but this was never accomplished. The new version met with much greater success, the composer Robert Schumann praising Mendelssohn for his ‘characteristic poetic grasp’ and his ‘alluring’ portrait of Melusine. The work as a whole epitomises Mendelssohn’s elegance without perhaps distilling the last degree of his genius to the same extent as those works mentioned above.
In fact musicologists have been of the opinion that the opening seascape, with rippling wind and strings, influenced Wagner’s portrait of the Rhine and the Rhinemaidens in the first instalment of his Ring cycle, The Rhinegold. Greater drama ensues with dynamic rhythms portraying the tempestuous relationship, before a more elegant secondary theme sheds a more romantic light. Midway Melusine returns to the sea for her Saturday sojourn; drama returns, rising to a stirring climax as Melusine’s identity is revealed. Sadly she slips back into her watery home.