Mendelssohn's overture The Hebrides or Fingal's Cave is regularly considered the musical landscape (or seascape) painting par excellence. Scarcely another work has such an unerring capacity to suggest the wide horizons, delicate nuances of changing color and light, the ceaseless rolling of the ocean breakers and freedom of the sea. Nevertheless, despite the popularity of this idea of musical landscape since the early nineteenth century, it is far from clear analytically or phenomenologically how the predominantly aural and temporal experience of music might convey a sense of visual space that would appear central to the perception of landscape. This article explores Mendelssohn's archetypal example of the musical seascape in order to unravel these concerns. After briefly charting the philosophical reefs that encircle this issue, I examine how the aural may nevertheless translate to the visual, and thus how music might create its own, virtual landscape. Traveling beyond this, however, we reach the limits of mimesis and the visual for explaining Mendelssohn's overture, uncovering his music's implications for mythic-historical and personal memory, synaesthesia, and the embodied subject. Ultimately I argue for a more ecomusicological understanding of Mendelssohn's work as embodying a critical reading of a fragile human subjectivity within nature, an immersive projection of the wild, northern sublime.
Seascape in the Mist: Lost in Mendelssohn's Hebrides
Benedict Taylor is Chancellor's Fellow in the Reid School of Music, University of Edinburgh. He is the author of two monographs, Mendelssohn, Time and Memory: The Romantic Conception of Cyclic Form (Cambridge, 2011) and The Melody of Time: Music and Temporality in the Romantic Era, published by Oxford earlier this year, as well as a number of articles on nineteenth- and twentieth-century music.
I would like to thank Daniel Grimley and my former colleagues in the music and landscape group at Oxford for first setting me thinking about the problematics of music and landscape, Edward Jacobson for originally suggesting the idea of The Hebrides as constituting a personal “musical postcard,” and Sebastian Wedler and the two reviewers for this journal for their kind comments and suggestions on the first draft of this article. A shorter version was presented at the third “Hearing Landscape Critically” Conference at Harvard University in January 2015, and I would similarly like to thank all those who offered comments there, as well as the University of Edinburgh for providing the means to attend the conference.
Benedict Taylor; Seascape in the Mist: Lost in Mendelssohn's Hebrides. 19th-Century Music 1 March 2016; 39 (3): 187–222. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2016.39.3.187
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