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Mendelssohn's anti-who?

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Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 09:30 UK time, Thursday, 12 February 2009

antigone.jpgIf you are as curious as I am about Mendelssohn's Antigone, don't miss the broadcast of this extraordinary rarity tomorrow on Afternoon Performance on 3. And don't worry if you've never heard of it before; neither have I ...

Yet it turns out that, in Mendelssohn's lifetime, his music for Sophocles's tragedy, Antigone, about the daughter of Oedipus was exceedingly popular, not least because its themes had more than a little to do with the dilemmas facing the monarch of Prussia, Frederick William IV, who commissioned the production for which Mendelssohn created the score in 1841. Privately performed for an invited audience at Potsdam in October that year, it then received its public premiere in the Berlin Schauspielhaus in April 1842, was given six more there because it went so well, and three years later made its way to Covent Garden where it was heard in no fewer than 45 consecutive performances in 1845 alone.

What makes the prospect of a hearing particularly intriguing is that Mendelssohn sought, to some extent, to recreate the practices of Greek drama, though he quickly dropped an initial idea to restrict the chorus to unison chanting and the accompaniment to harp, flute and tuba (perhaps it would have been even more fascinating if he'd stuck with that!). The end result used a full modern orchestra and a chorus of 16 men, of whom one serves as 'coryphaeus' (leader). Most of the play's words were spoken; elsewhere Mendelssohn experiments with 'melodrama', in which instrumental music underlies the spoken words; and elsewhere, as R. Larry Todd tells us in his excellent Mendelssohn: A Life in Music, he set up 'a novel form of rhythmic speech, by bending the musical accompaniment to the natural inflections of the text'.

For the premiere, the theatre at Potsdam was rebuilt according to classical Greek specifications, raising the performers five feet above the audience and ensuring that the stage could be seen from every part of the theatre (a principal ignored, alas, in far too many 19th-century venues). Three days after the performance, Felix was officially appointed royal Kapellmeister to the Prussian court.

Covent Garden's approach was different: they brought on the dancing girls. Felix is thought to have been unimpressed.

Recordings of the work exist, of course, but do take the chance to tune in - a bird in the hand, etc. And please write in with your impressions!

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