Felix Mendelssohn: The Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave)


Composed in 1830 during a trip to the British Isles, Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture is one of his most-loved works. A year earlier in 1829, Mendelssohn took a trip to the Scottish island of Staffa, which has a basalt sea cave known as ‘Fingal’s Cave’. It is said that upon first looking at the cave Mendelssohn was so overwhelmed that he began to write what we know as the opening to Hebrides Overture on the back of a postcard. 

Originally named To the Lonely Island, there is often some confusion on the double-named work. Mendelssohn settled on the name Hebrides Overture, however in the first publication in 1834, Breitkopf & Härtel issued the edition with the name Fingalshöhle (Fingal’s Cave). Most copies now have both titles to help aid the confusion. 

Whilst visiting Scotland in 1829, Mendelssohn was also working on his Third Symphony, aptly subtitled ‘Scottish’. As well as composing that, Mendelssohn also wrote a fair proportion of the overture too. He sent a postcard to his sister Fanny to say that “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following which came into my head there.” On that postcard was the iconic bass opening from the overture. 

After various rewrites from Mendelssohn, the overture was published in 1832 and was first performed on 10th January 1833 in Berlin with Mendelssohn conducting. 


The Music

Hebrides Overture is not necessarily programmatic in the sense that it doesn’t follow a clear narrative, however that does not mean it’s not full of exciting natural imagery. The music sets a scene, which indeed is the memories that Mendelssohn experienced on his trip to Scotland.

The iconic opening is based on B minor arpeggios from the lower strings and bassoons. The theme creates a mysterious atmosphere, which depicts the approach to the cave. As the winds and upper strings enter with flourishes, the music blossoms into a sweet lyrical theme. The suggestive power and grandeur of the cave is at the heart of this opening.

The theme is repeated several times, with the tonality rising higher and higher as more of the cave is unveiled. As the upper strings and winds begin to take over the theme, the low rumble from the lower instruments creates an ebb and flow, creating a sea-like accompaniment. Dramatic crescendos depict waves crashing on the rocks nearby, adding maximum impact and drama. 

The second theme of the overture is much broader and in a major key. The soaring melodies fly above the rumbling accompaniment, with many critics commenting that this is one of Mendelssohn’s greatest melodies. The nautical tone remains throughout, with the ebb and flow rarely breaking its cycle. Spritely winds and heroic brass also add to this atmosphere with decoration throughout. 

This expansive theme plays to Mendelssohn’s strengths of composing long luscious lines of melodies. The peaceful ambience is carried through across the orchestra, with statements from the winds adding to the serene feeling within the music.

As the music begins to build back up, so do the dynamics of the work. As the brass start playing a larger part, the drama intensifies and the music goes into an extended coda section. The overture ends with a haunting statement from the opening mysterious line in B minor. The theme is passed around some of the winds, with the flute having the last word with its ascending B minor arpeggio, accompanied by pizzicato strings. 


Final Thoughts

Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture is an example of one of the first ever tone poems. Packed full of nautical imagery, the overture takes you on a journey through the memories of Mendelssohn. From nautical themes to the grandeur of seeing the cave for the first time, Hebrides Overture has remained one of Mendelssohn’s most iconic works, that is still regularly programmed today.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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