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It is not however, in the form of painting or of sculpture that Art has furnished the Antigone with its most famous and most delightful illustration. Two generations have now been so accustomed to associate this play with the music of Mendelssohn that at least a passing notice is due to
the circumstances under which that music was composed; circumstances which, at a distance of nearly half a century, possess a peculiar interest of their own for these later days of classical revivals. After Frederick William IV. had come to the Prussian throne in June, 1840, one of his first acts was to found at Berlin the Academy of Arts for Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and Music; Mendelssohn, who was then thirty-two, became the first Director of the department of Music, in the spring of 1841. The King had conceived the wish to revive some of the masterpieces of Greek Tragedy,— a project which the versatile poet Tieck, then on the confines of old age, encouraged warmly; none the less so, it would seem, because his own youth had been so vigorously identified with the protests of the Romantic school against classical restraint. Donner had recently published his German translation of Sophocles, ‘in the metres of the original,’ and the Antigone was chosen for the experiment. Mendelssohn accepted with enthusiasm the task of writing the music. The rapidity with which he worked may be estimated from the fact that Sept. 9, 1841, seems to have been about the date at which Tieck first broached the idea to him, and that the first full stage rehearsal took place some six weeks later,—on October 22nd. The success of the music in Germany seems to have been immediate and great; rather more than could be said of the first performance in London, when the Antigone, with the new music, was brought out at Covent Garden, on Jan. 2, 1845. The orchestra on that occasion, indeed, had a conductor no less able than the late Sir G Macfarren; but the Chorus was put on the stage in a manner of which a graphic memorial has been preserved to us1. It may be added that the Covent Garden stage-manager improved the opportunity of the joyous ‘dance-song’ to Dionysus (vv. 1115-1154) by introducing a regular ballet.

To most lovers of music Mendelssohn's Antigone is too familiar to permit any word of comment here; but it may perhaps be less superfluous to remark a fact which has been brought under the writer's notice by an accomplished scholar2. For the most part, the music admits of having the Greek words set to it in a way which shows that Mendelssohn, while writing for Donner's words, must have been guided by something more than Donner's imitation of the Greek metres; he must also have been attentive, as a general rule, to the Greek text.

1 On March 25, 1845, Mendelssohn wrote to his sister:—‘See if you cannot find Punch for Jan. 18 [1845]. It contains an account of Antigone at Covent Garden, with illustrations,—especially a view of the Chorus which has made me laugh for three days.’ In his excellent article on Mendelssohn in the Dictionary of Music, Sir G. Grove has justly deemed this picture worthy of reproduction.

2 Mr George Wotherspoon, who has practically demonstrated the point by setting the Greek words to the music for the Parodos (vv. 100-161). It is only in the last antistrophe, he observes, that the ‘phrasing’ becomes distinctly modern, and less attentive to the Greek rhythms than to harmonic effects.

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  • Cross-references from this page (1):
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 1115
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    • Sophocles, Antigone, 100
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