Felix Mendelssohn: Ruy Blas Overture


After reading (and hating) Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, Felix Mendelssohn was asked to write an overture based on the grim story in 1839. The play, based in 18th-century Spain, tells the story of Ruy Blas, a servant who is tricked by his master, Don Salluste. The love lives of the two men begin to crossover and the tale ends in bloody murder-suicide. Although now regarded as one of Hugo’s finest works, when premiered it received lukewarm reviews. 

Fast forward to the late 1830s and Mendelssohn is pushing back on this commission. Mendelssohn agreed to write all but a song in honour of the work as he claimed he did not have enough time to write an overture as well. Something piqued his interest in the end, as he ended up composing the overture in just three days.


The Music

One of Mendelssohn’s bolder works, the carefully-skilled orchestration is striking. The opening wind and brass chords, which punctuate various parts of the overture, are dark and noble. The foreboding opening is quickly changed by a carefree and energetic melody that sweeps through the upper strings and woodwind. Mendelssohn’s skilful melodic writing, for which he is often celebrated, shines through in this overture. The quick scalic movement and the bold unison sections create dramatic light and shade to the music. 

As the music begins building back up to the recapitulation of the overture, Mendelssohn plays with the textures. Rich textures outweigh the sparse, and the foreboding wind and brass chords add to these quick changes in texture. The excitement begins to build as the music heads into the home straight. Swirling strings fizz with excitement as the brass and wind begin to penetrate the top layer of texture. A quick replay of the opening melody leads to a classic IV-V-I ending. 


Final Thoughts

Felix Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas Overture is a great concert opener, with its classy melodies, energetic tempi and dramatic texture changes. He may not have liked Hugo’s play, but this certainly does not show in his overture.


Ⓒ Alex Burns 2020

Happy Reading!

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