Die erste Walpurgisnacht
Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night) is a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, telling of the attempts of Druids in the Harz mountains to practice their pagan rituals in the face of new and dominating Christian forces. It was famously set to music by Felix Mendelssohn as a secular cantata for soloists (alto, tenor, baritone, bass), choir, and orchestra. He completed an initial version in 1831, and extensively revised it before publishing it as his opus 60 in 1843.
The composition consists of ten movements, including the programatic overture, lasting about 36 minutes:
- Ouvertüre: Das schlechte Wetter-Der Übergang zum Frühling (Overture: Bad weather and Transition to Spring)
- "Es lacht der Mai" (May is in full bloom): tenor & chorus of Druids & people.
- "Könnt ihr so verwegen handeln?" (Could you be so rash, so daring?): lto, old woman, & chorus of wives of the people.
- "Wer Opfer heut zu bringen scheut" (Whoever fears to sacrifice): baritone, priest, & chorus of Druids.
- "Verteilt euch, wackre Männer, hier" (Divide your forces, valiant men): chorus of Druid watchmen.
- "Diese dummen Pfaffenchristen" (Christians and their priests are witless): bass, watchman, & chorus of watchmen.
- "Kommt mit Zacken und hit Gabeln" (Come with prongs and pitchforks): chorus of Druids and people.
- "So weit gebracht, dass wir bei Nacht" (It's come so far that now by night): baritone, priest, & chorus of Druids and people.
- "Hilf, ach hilf mir, Kriegsgeselle" (Help, oh help me, comrade): tenor & chorus of Christian watchmen.
- "Die Flamme reinigt sich vom Rauch" (The flame is purified by smoke): baritone, priest, & chorus of Druids and people.
Goethe wrote this text to be set to music, intending it for his friend Carl Friedrich Zelter, who tried twice, in 1799 and 1812, but did not complete a setting. Mendelssohn, who knew Goethe, first took it up in 1830 and completed it 13 years later; it was first performed in Leipzig on 2 February 1843.
The story is about how a prank allows for a local tradition to take place in spite of opposition from an intolerant new regime. The Druids and local heathen would celebrate May Day, but, as a women's chorus warns, this is now forbidden. The Druid priests counter that those who fear to sacrifice deserve their chains. A comic solution emerges as a Druid watchman suggests a masquerade of the Devil, spirits, and demons to frighten the occupying Christians. The Christians are scared away, and the Druids and heathen are left to celebrate Spring and the Sun.
The attractions of this text for Mendelssohn likely were the ghost scene (compare his incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream) and the triumph (by guile) of an oppressed group in an occupied land, an important Enlightenment idea, as well as one perhaps reflecting the composer's Jewish background: the final verses of the oratorio emphasize an abstract divinity ("dein Licht") over a threatened earthly ritual ("den alten Brauch"). According to Melvin Berger, Mendelssohn was raised a Protestant but "was never fully accepted as a Christian by his contemporaries, nor was he ever fully cut off from his Judaic heritage." Consequently,
Musicians have long debated whether Mendelssohn's three major choral works reflect his religious duality--born into what had been a Jewish family, but living as a Lutheran. The main subject of St. Paul is a figure from the New Testament who, although born as a Jew, became an early leader of Christianity. The First Walpurgis Night sympathetically describes pagan rituals and presents Christians in a poor light. And Elijah probes the wisdom of an Old Testament prophet from Israel.
- "Die erste Walpurgisnacht", p. 226, in The World of the Oratorio, Kurt Pahlen. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1990.
- Melvin Berger. Guide to Choral Masterpieces: A Listener's Guide. New York: Anchor Books, 1993.
- Pahlen, p. 226
- Pahlen, p. 226
- Pahlen, p. 226
- Berger, p. 199
- Berger, pp. 207-08