In 1830 Mendelssohn set out for Italy, making his last substantial stop, before moving south, in Weimar. He was warmly greeted by Goethe, now turned 80 and long since installed as the grand old man, but still with a sharp eye for a pretty girl and an insatiable delight in being entertained or instructed. Mendelssohn had to play to him for hours on end, and was courageous enough to insist on including some Beethoven, while the sage sat "in a dark corner, like a Jupiter Tonans, his old eyes flashing at me". Mendelssohn was to leave a vivid account in his letters of those days, the last occasion on which he was to see Goethe; and as they parted, he was given a page of Faust, cordially inscribed, and the text of a longish early poem which Goethe had vainly pressed on other composers, Die erste Walpurgisnacht. It has no connection with Faust, and takes the form of a dramatic ballad in which the poet attempts to rationalise the old tales of evil rites on the Brocken by inventing a story of Druids celebrating their forbidden rites suitably dressed to persuade interloping Christians that they were devils. Mendelssohn duly set it, and it was performed first in 1833, later in a revised version in 1843; for a time it was quite popular, including in England.
One of the musicians Mendelssohn met in Italy was Berlioz, whose Faust had already been ignored by Goethe and whose wildness Mendelssohn found little to his wellorganised taste. His own musical account of these ferocious Druidic doings is mild indeed. There is a good, whirling overture (which might make a re-appearance in the concert hall from time to time) ; and the centre of the work is the chorus depicting the excited heathens rushing through the ravines of the Brocken rattling their staves and waving their torches. Previously, there has been an excellently written chorus depicting the heathens, set about with nerve-tingling pizzicato, creeping watchfully through the woods. But there is little sense of danger or of the allegedly sinister rites that send the Christian Guard running panic-stricken down the mountain; and well written though it is, the final C major chorus does not really crown this awkwardly shaped structure. Indeed, Goethe, whose judgement of music was very erratic, was not really conferring so great a favour as he hoped upon his well-loved young friend; and Mendelssohn was unable to provide the homage he no doubt intended to the great man whose admiration he had so deeply valued, and whom he was never to see again.
# Performer: Siegfried Lorenz, Edda Moser, Eberhard Büchner, Annelies Burmeister
The performances of this, and of the little scena which Mendelssohn composed for the London Philharmonic Society, are excellent, with particularly fine string playing from the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Kurt Masur: the chorus sing vehemently, though they are not very clearly recorded as far as their words are concerned; the soloists in the cantata deliver themselves of their lines effectively, and Edda Moser goes through suitable motions of dreadful despair in Infelice!.-- J.W. /Gramophone
# Orchestra: Leipzig Radio Chorus, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Leipzig Radio Symphony Chorus
# Conductor: Kurt Masur