Fingal’s Cave is a magical cave on the uninhabited island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides. It sits amongst the Sea and has natural acoustics, caused by echoes of waves; this gives it the atmosphere of a natural cathedral. Its Gaelic name is An Uaimh Bhinn, meaning “the melodious cave.”
It became known as Fingal’s Cave after the eponymous hero of an epic poem by 18th century Scots poet-historian James Macpherson. It formed part of his Ossian cycle of poems claimed to have been based on old Scottish Gaelic poems. In Irish mythology, the hero Fingal is known as Fionn mac Cumhaill, and it is suggested that Macpherson rendered the name as Fingal (meaning “white stranger”) through a misapprehension of the name which in old Gaelic would appear as Finn. The legend of the Giant’s Causeway has Fionn or Finn building the causeway between Ireland and Scotland.
The German composer Felix Mendelssohn visited Fingal’s Cave in 1829 and was spellbound by it, so much so that he wrote a beautiful overture inspired by its mysterious echoes. He named it The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave). He wrote to his sister Fanny:
In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.
Below is Mendelssohn’s initial sketch for the theme of the Hebrides Overture, found in a letter dated August 7, 1829 to his sister Fanny (original in the Music Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts).
This is a work of genius- the music perfectly evokes the waves crashing around the Cave, its atmosphere; the feeling of awe of the power of Nature and its majestic beauty. I love this Overture. Mendelssohn was just 21 years old when he composed this masterpiece!
Listen to it here:
The Daily Kos has a great essay on The Fingal’s Cave Overture:
Here we have one of the most beautiful of Romantic overtures ever composed, and it was dedicated to A CAVE.
Mendelssohn composed this when he was 21. Before you say that that was too young, the fact is, many of his greatest works were composed when he was young, even though he had a long career. His greatest composition might be the Midsummer’s Night Dream Overture, which he composed when he was all of 17 years old. I once started to write a diary on his Midsummer’s Night Dream but abandoned it when I realized just how complicated a task it would be. Mendelssohn was brilliant, and his musical brilliance expressed itself early. He has been compared to Mozart in this regard, but unlike Mozart, his music didn’t really grow by the same leaps and bounds as he aged.
So I’m quite pleased exploring the “early” works of Mendelssohn. Composed in 1830, this is about contemporary with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, making it early or middle period Romanticism. The harmonic vocabulary isn’t as wild as some things that were yet to come with the later Romantics. But unlike some of those other Romantics, Mendelssohn excelled at something they must have envied: Counterpoint. The ability to have many different musical things going on all at the same time without them stumbling over each other. That’s what I wait for when I listen to Mendelssohn. The Fingal’s Cave overture begins relatively simply, with a clear transparent main theme carried by the deeper voice of the cellos. That relative simplicity will give way to greater complexity as the work progresses.
Full essay here:
The English Romantic poet John Keats visited the island of Staffa in July 1818, accompanied by his friend Charles Brown. Keats was just as captivated by the wild beauty of the island and Fingal’s cave, as Felix Mendelssohn was 11 years later.
Keats wrote to his brother Tom describing Staffa and enclosed the following poem:
Ever such a work began;
Not the wizard of the Dee
Ever such a dream could see;
Not St. John, in Patmos’ Isle,
In the passion of his toil,
When he saw the churches seven,
Golden aisl’d, built up in heaven,
Gaz’d at such a rugged wonder.
As I stood its roofing under
Lo! I saw one sleeping there,
On the marble cold and bare.
While the surges wash’d his feet,
And his garments white did beat.
Drench’d about the sombre rocks,
On his neck his well-grown locks,
Lifted dry above the main,
Were upon the curl again.
“What is this? and what art thou?”
Whisper’d I, and touch’d his brow;
“What art thou? and what is this?”
Whisper’d I, and strove to kiss
The spirit’s hand, to wake his eyes;
Up he started in a trice:
“I am Lycidas,” said he,
“Fam’d in funeral minstrely!
This was architectur’d thus
By the great Oceanus!–
Here his mighty waters play
Hollow organs all the day;
Here by turns his dolphins all,
Finny palmers great and small,
Come to pay devotion due–
Each a mouth of pearls must strew.
Many a mortal of these days,
Dares to pass our sacred ways,
Dares to touch audaciously
This Cathedral of the Sea!
I have been the pontiff-priest
Where the waters never rest,
Where a fledgy sea-bird choir
Soars for ever; holy fire
I have hid from mortal man;
Proteus is my Sacristan.
But the dulled eye of mortal
Hath pass’d beyond the rocky portal;
So for ever will I leave
Such a taint, and soon unweave
All the magic of the place.”
* * * * * *
So saying, with a Spirit’s glance