Felix Mendelssohn's Wedding March
It’s June! Wedding season is here! One of the most popular pieces of music performed at weddings was composed not for a real wedding, but for one in a Shakespearean play. It’s the Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Felix Mendelssohn (Feb. 3, 1809 - Nov. 4, 1847). Even if you don't know it by name, you almost certainly are familiar with the melody. You can hear an arrangement of the main melody in the video above.
Mendelssohn was a German composer in the Romantic Era. He was possibly one of the greatest known child musical prodigies in Western music and a polymath, someone who achieves excellence in many fields. He was a voracious learner and lifelong student and founded the Leipzig Conservatory of Music in 1848.
Mendelssohn composed many well-known pieces for orchestra, small ensemble, piano, organ, and choir, as well as operas and oratorios. Two of his best known works today are the standard Christmas carol, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and The Wedding March, which comes from music he composed to accompany William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream, German title: Ein Sommernachtstraum. He actually composed music for the play at two different points in his life, first the overture at only 17 years old in 1826 and then the incidental music 16 years later in 1842.
The Wedding March gained popularity at weddings after it was selected by Princess Victoria for her marriage to Prince Frederick William of Prussia in 1858, shown above in the painting by Scottish painter John Phillip (April 19, 1817 - 1867). Other brides and grooms who wanted to elevate their own ceremonies with the royal treatment began requesting that the piece be performed at their weddings as well. Princess Victoria wasn’t the only royal Victoria to start a long-lasting wedding tradition. Her mother’s, Queen Victoria, choice of a white gown for her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840 launched the white bridal gown tradition that remains popular up until now.
The piece has been arranged and recorded by many notable composers and performers. The video above contains a recording from Feb. 14, 1901 of The Wedding March that was performed and arranged by Kendle's First Regiment Band of Camden, New Jersey. Composer and 19th century version of a rock star Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (Oct. 22, 1811 – July 31, 1886) wrote a virtuosic version. Russian-born American 20th-century piano showman Vladimir Horowitz (Oct. 1, 1903 – Nov. 5, 1989) performed his own version of Liszt’s transcription as a big finale in his concerts. Other composers and arrangers have composed versions for string quartet, concert band, and even a kazoo orchestra!
The piece is composed in C major but the first theme is in E minor, an unusual choice in Western music and gives it a fairy-inspired mood that corresponds to the fantasy and enchantment of Shakespeare’s play. The march begins with a triplet fanfare motive and the melody soars with arpeggiated chords and the steady quarter note heavy procession and dotted rhythms of a typical march. The texture is homophonic and chorale-like.
The music also includes many trills that are reminiscent of the braying of the donkey character of Bottom.
Although the work may seem cliché at weddings today, its performance at Christian weddings was one at time considered controversial and still is to some. Since the plot of the play centers around pagan themes, like gods, goddesses, fairies, magic, and the mystical night of the summer solstice or midsummer, some churches do not consider it appropriate for a wedding ceremony! Although the reservations of some church leaders, The Wedding March from A Midsummer Night's Dream is still of the most often performed works of wedding music and remains one of the most common choices for wedding recessional music as the bridal party departs.
[The other most famous wedding march from Western art music has a similarly controversial reputation. The so-called "Here Comes the Bride" March or Bridal Chorus from the 1850 opera Lohengrin by German composer Richard Wagner (May 22, 1813 - Feb.13, 1883) is considered an inappropriate choice for the wedding ceremony by due to the pagan themes of the opera by some and by others due to the poor character and all-around horribleness of the composer as a person, but that's another discussion entirely for another post.]
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For Further Information
The Wedding March: Everything You Need to Know.
Controversial Wedding Music.
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.
Contact Janae: firstname.lastname@example.org