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DETAILS:

Timing:
c. 6:00

Orchestration:
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: May, 2001.

When Felix Mendelssohn was 15, his family moved into an enormous mansion on what was then the outskirts of Berlin (a former princely palace, it would later house the upper chamber of the Prussian Parliament) that quickly became a center for artists, intellectuals, and famous persons of the city. The house was so large that Mendelssohn’s father had an office for his fabulously successful banking business in one wing and rented upstairs rooms to the diplomatic legation from Hanover for use both as offices and residences for its employees. Karl Klingeman, a 27-year-old poet who worked as a secretary in the legation, was one of the Hanoverian boarders who became close to the Mendelssohn family. Like nearly all the functionaries and luminaries in and around the Mendelssohn household, Klingeman was particularly taken by the awesome young Felix, who in his middle teens was already turning out mature masterpieces, and could also draw like a professional artist, write competent poetry, and was so fluent in classical Latin that his translation of a second-century B.C. comedy by Terence was actually published in 1826. A composer with such a literary bent seemed a natural for the world of opera. It didn’t work out that way.

Klingeman wrote an opera libretto for Mendelssohn based on a chapter of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes’ tale of an elderly country gentlemen so besotted with books about heroic knights that he goes insane and believes he has become a knight, and sets off around the countryside trying to do great deeds. Klingeman chose an episode in which a father’s plan to marry his daughter off to a rich man she doesn’t love, instead of the poor man she does love, is foiled and nearly everyone lives happily after. Mendelssohn finished composing the opera in 1825, and in 1827, after a good deal of negotiating and wrangling, it was staged in the Royal Court Theater in Berlin. Mendelssohn’s lifelong friend Eduard Devrient described it as a failure:

“The house was crowded with well-wishers, and the applause was profuse and enthusiastic; the music, however, did not give genuine pleasure. The young composer, too, must have felt this. The work represented his musical thought of two years ago; he had now outgrown it and felt so doubtful amidst the applause of his friends that he left the theater before the end of the performance, and when [he was] called before the curtain, I had to make an apology for him.”

Devrient’s account leaves us wondering whether the lack of genuine pleasure, and the idea of having outgrown the music, were Mendelssohn’s, or Devrient’s, or both. Press notices were condescending (“not really too bad for the work of a rich man’s son,” said one critic; another said the opera had not “enhanced the greatly overrated reputation of Herr Mendelssohn Bartholdy”). Camacho’s Wedding has always been described as a failure; its only other performance before the late 20th-century was in Boston in 1885.

Though a recent recording shows the opera to be an impressive work, Devrient probably put his finger on the problem when he said that during the rehearsals
“I had not grown attached to a single melody.” Opera, like any musical theater, needs hits. Though he was always professing to look for a suitable libretto, Mendelssohn never wrote another opera, though there is no telling what he might have done had he lived longer.

The overture to Camacho’s Wedding is an energetic piece with an impressive opening, for a larger orchestra – with trombones and four horns – than Mendelssohn used in his most familiar orchestral works, such as the Scottish and Italian symphonies. The solemn fanfare at the beginning and end of the overture represents Don Quixote himself; in the opera it is heard whenever the Knight of the Woeful Countenance makes an inept but fortuitous intervention in the plot. Devrient complained to Mendelssohn that it was far too noble and impressive for the comical and pathetic figure of Don Quixote, but, according to Devrient, Mendelssohn maintained that Don Quixote “believed himself to be a genuine hero, capable of all glorious deeds, and that the composer ought to express the feelings of his dramatic personage, not his own.”

-- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra and the Coleman Chamber Concerts.