Concert Notes

Mendelssohn’s “Ruy Blas” Overture

Notes by TŌN clarinetist Dávid Kéringer

Composed for Victor Hugo’s historical drama of the same title, Felix Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas Overture is a testament to the composer’s ability to create magnificent music on rather short notice. A few weeks before the new play was to debut on stage, the producers, the Leipzig Theatrical Pension Fund, commissioned Mendelssohn to write an overture and a song for Hugo’s piece, which the composer wasn’t particularly fond of. Only the reverse-psychological effect of a last-minute conversation made him change his mind. In the hope of better attendance, the Fund wanted Mendelssohn’s name included, but at first, he declined their request for an overture. The Romance for two-part women’s chorus was submitted, but six days before the show, one of the producers’ comments made him have second thoughts: they apologetically said that they understood it was simply impossible to compose an overture with those time constraints. Irritated by those words, he started working on the score that same night, and the Ruy Blas Overture was premiered at the event. He later admitted that he enjoyed composing the piece.

The overture opens with a majestic wind fanfare answered by emotional string passages, immediately setting the tone for the unfolding drama. Mendelssohn masterfully employs contrasting sections, seamlessly transitioning between light and dark, trouble and joy. Key themes of a never-existing musical play are introduced; we can imagine the closed velvet curtains in an elegant opera house, just before the plot and the characters’ arcs would unfold. In Victor Hugo’s drama, the deceitful former minister of finance, Don Salluste de Bazan, seeks revenge on the Spanish queen, Maria, who damaged his reputation by exposing his wrongdoings. Don Salluste’s brother refuses to help; he instead disguises his valet, Ruy Blas, as a nobleman and introduces him to the royal court. Blas does surprisingly well: he starts political reforms and wins the queen’s heart, creating the awaited tension between the royal couple. When Don Salluste reveals the truth and humiliates his valet, Blas kills him and commits suicide with poison. During Blas’ last moments, the queen then confesses her love and forgives him.

One would rightfully ask the question: Why would Mendelssohn choose to end the piece in C major, in a pretty uplifting way? Contrary to the aforementioned plot, the outcome of this musical piece is quite positive. My first thought would be that Mendelssohn was simply exercising artistic freedom—it was the natural way to develop the musical texture, or maybe it was the result of the self-reported detachment from the topic. It’s possible that the short time might have prevented him from completing the assignment as expected; by immersing himself in something he dislikes, only to please the Fund. So, to answer the question, I don’t necessarily think that Mendelssohn had the same ideas in his head as Hugo had. He might have imagined his piece as a stand-alone work and not as something closely related to the drama’s story.

Regardless of that, Mendelssohn’s beautifully crafted music has kept the piece relevant since then, making it a captivating journey for audiences of all generations.