1831: Mendelssohn: Die erste Walpurgisnacht, age 22

Mr. Peabody Says:

It’s the pagans against the Christians. Their traditions have been forbidden, so they dress up with scary costumes, carrying prongs and pitchforks, and scare the Christian priests. It heats up here: These witless Christian priests, followed by Come with prongs and pitchforks.

The story:

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. More HERE.

Keep going to around the 25 minute mark. I’d easily put this on the same level as anything Wagner ever wrote in terms of music, and the drama is much better because it’s all set to words Goethe wrote for this work.

Kurt Masur/Gewandhausorchester Leipzig

The whole thing plays, but you can use the time stamps to know where you are. “P” is for the page of the score, because I was not only reading the words, in German, and listening, I had the score out to look at exactly what Mendelssohn wrote.


  • 0:01 : Bad weather! A minor
    The music is turbulent. The wind is howling, and it’s cold. It’s still winter.
  • 6:18 P38 Transition to Spring  A major
    This is actually written in the score. “It’s May, it’s May, the lovely month of May,” from Camelot. the horns announce the change in weather.

The story starts:

  1. 8:44 P43  May is laughing: tenor & chorus of Druids & people. A major
    May is laughing! The forest is free of ice and frost. The snow is gone.
  2. 12:43 P63  Could you be so rash?: alto, old woman, & chorus of wives of the people. D minor
    An old woman is afraid that by standing up to the conquerors people will be killed, in retribution.
  3. 14:36 P68 Whoever this day fears to sacrifice: baritone, priest, & chorus of Druids. C major E minor to E major
    One of the men says that those who do not fight back deserve their bonds. So they hatch a plan.
  4. 16:18 P77 Spread out here, valiant men: chorus of Druid watchmen. E major
    They will spread out all through the forest, and they will watch in silence until it is night time, and then they can try to scare away the conquerors.
  5. 18:24 P86 These witless Christian priests: bass, watchman, & chorus of watchmen. G minor
    The dim-witted Christian priests are about to be frightened by men dressed up as the Devil and other evil spirits.
  6. 20:50 P97 Come with prongs and pitchforks: chorus of Druids and people. A minor
    Come with prongs and with pitchforks, like the devil they’ve invented, and with fierce rattling-sticks. There will be screech owls in our howling!
  7. 24:42 P131 It’s come so far that we now by night…: baritone, priest, & chorus of Druids and people. A minor – C major
    They sing the praises of the Allfather by night, saying that when day breaks they will have a pure heart.
  8. 27:89 P140 Help, oh help me, comrade: tenor & chorus of Christian watchmen. C minor
    There are human wolves, dragon women and the Devil as the pagans frighten the Christians. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
  9. 28:09 P147 The flame frees itself of smoke: baritone, priest, & chorus of Druids and people. C major
    Their faith burns bright, so even if the conquerors crush their traditions, no one can crush The Light.


  • piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
  • 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones
  • timpani, bass drum, cymbal
  • strings
  • alto, tenor, baritone, bass
  • chorus


He was finished with his first version in 1831, and I read that he was already thinking about this project at age 12,but his final version was not published until 1843, so worked on this for more than two decades.

From Goethe:

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 it was first performed in Berlin on 10 January 1833.

The words:

The German is HERE.

I’m not suggesting that anyone try to figure out Goethe, but for the record I read German, and it’s really good, with the same quality of Shakespeare. Unlike the illiterate garbage that Wagner wrote for his own operas, really stupid, horrible gaseous nonsense, reading Goethe is amazing, so the unison of his words with Mendelssohn’s music is unbelievable.

2 thoughts on “1831: Mendelssohn: Die erste Walpurgisnacht, age 22

  1. This to me just shows the versatility of music in what it can say or make you feel. It is always extremely interesting and impressive when a composer manages to tell a story in his music. Especially in this case when there are words to go along with it. The artistry here is incredible and is a clear example of how music can be used to the same effects as film, just as film makes use of music to achieve its full potential. Great piece.

  2. This is amazing on so many levels. There is the artistry of the composition, of the performance, and the work of Goethe. (I also read German). I listened to this twice today.

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