Felix Mendelssohn's establishment of the concert overture as a domain of lively compositional innovation represents one of the most important achievements of orchestral music from the period immediately following Beethoven's death. In their remarkable ability to evoke lofty extramusical subjects through a purely instrumental medium, Mendelssohn's overtures were christened as vessels of musical progress in a manner that anticipated significantly the claims of the midcentury Lisztian symphonic poem. To grasp more fully the overtures' progressivism, though, we must attend closely to the relationship within them between formal particularity and programmatic implication. This endeavor is especially appropriate to Mendelssohn's Meeresstille und gluckliche Fahrt, whose idiosyncratic formal dimension raises pressing hermeneutical questions. Mendelssohn based this work on two poems by Goethe that trace a liberating progression from the deathly immobility of a becalmed sea to the redemptive vitality of a rising wind and the promise of homecoming. While commentators have often noted the overtly pictorial moments of Mendelssohn's overture, only recently has programmatic inquiry turned toward the unfolding of the considerably broad musical voyage itself. But here the analytical privileging of the work's thematic process has supported the image of a journey with little risk. By contrast, a more thoroughly genre-based look at the overture's Gluckliche Fahrt portion reveals a voyage laden with perils as well as possibilities.
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