Fingal’s Cave- music and poetry

Fingal’s Cave- music and poetry

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.”

From wikipedia:

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:

Here is my collaged painting Of Fingal’s Cave with an overlay of Felix Mendelssohn (one of his portraits I found online, superimposed using pic monkey) – here he is composing the music..

Fingals cave2

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:


Not Aladdin magian
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
He dived!


Ode To A Nightingale, poem by John Keats read by Ben Whishaw

Ode To A Nightingale, poem by John Keats read by Ben Whishaw

The Nightingales who live in Lodge Hill, England, risk losing their homes!!!! 

Land Securities, Britain’s largest developers want to build 5,000 homes, a school, a nursing home and a hotel! As if 5,000 houses wasn’t bad enough…   And to make this even more despicable, the rarest butterfly in Britain, the Duke of Burgundy, live theres also.

Help save one of the most beautiful songbirds – the Nightingale – from extinction! Please sign this petition:

To Autumn, poem by John Keats read by Ben Whishaw

                            Tree behind a farm in rural Utah

                       TO AUTUMN.

        Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
        Conspiring with him how to load and bless
        With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
        To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
        And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
        To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
        With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
        And still more, later flowers for the bees,
        Until they think warm dayswill never cease,
        For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

      Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
      Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
      Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
      Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
      Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
      Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
      And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
      Steady thy laden head across a brook;
      Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

      Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
      Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
      While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
      And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
      Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
      Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
      And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
      Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
      The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

           John Keats, September 19, 1819.

Ben Whishaw reads To Autumn:

Lyric, lieder and poetry.

                          Lyric, lieder and poetry.

Listening to Michael Emmanuel Koch present John Keats’ poems to music, it has struck me how much Keats would have not only have appreciated this but how appropriate this is and popular it was in his time, not only in Britain (as in the case of Robert Burns’ poems) but also in Austria and Germany.

Poems were often set to music by composers and folk musicians. I really love hearing poems sang rather than recited ( as long as the music fits the mood of the poem and has a good melody of course!). Done well, the music can bring forth the rhythm and emotional content of the poem in a very effective way. Michael Emmanuel Koch is a good example of this. His renditions hark back to the medieval balladeers, who would travel around the countryside and play at fairs. Keats showed an interest in medieval stories as seen by La Belle Dame Sans Merci and The Eve of St Agnes.

I am struck by the coincidental theme of Hope in both a poem by John Keats, To Hope (written in February 1815, and published 1817)  and a lied of Beethoven’s also called To Hope (in German An die Hoffnung) at around the same period. Beethoven’s lied was set to a poem by Christoph August Tiedge ( I don’t know the date he wrote it) which Beethoven set to music twice. First in 1805 ( Opus 32) and then with a  new arrangement ( Opus 94) in 1815- this is the most popular version.


Here is the poem An Die Hoffnung:

 Compare it with Keats’ poem To Hope:

Keats side view2

When by my solitary hearth I sit,
And hateful thoughts enwrap my soul in gloom;
When no fair dreams before my “mind’s eye” flit,
And the bare heath of life presents no bloom;
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head.

Whene’er I wander, at the fall of night,
Where woven boughs shut out the moon’s bright ray,
Should sad Despondency my musings fright,
And frown, to drive fair Cheerfulness away,
Peep with the moon-beams through the leafy roof,
And keep that fiend Despondence far aloof.

Should Disappointment, parent of Despair,
Strive for her son to seize my careless heart;
When, like a cloud, he sits upon the air,
Preparing on his spell-bound prey to dart:
Chace him away, sweet Hope, with visage bright,
And fright him as the morning frightens night!

Whene’er the fate of those I hold most dear
Tells to my fearful breast a tale of sorrow,
O bright-eyed Hope, my morbid fancy cheer;
Let me awhile thy sweetest comforts borrow:
Thy heaven-born radiance around me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

Should e’er unhappy love my bosom pain,
From cruel parents, or relentless fair;
O let me think it is not quite in vain
To sigh out sonnets to the midnight air!
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

In the long vista of the years to roll,
Let me not see our country’s honour fade:
O let me see our land retain her soul,
Her pride, her freedom; and not freedom’s shade.
From thy bright eyes unusual brightness shed—
Beneath thy pinions canopy my head!

Let me not see the patriot’s high bequest,
Great Liberty! how great in plain attire!
With the base purple of a court oppress’d,
Bowing her head, and ready to expire:
But let me see thee stoop from heaven on wings
That fill the skies with silver glitterings!

And as, in sparkling majesty, a star
Gilds the bright summit of some gloomy cloud;
Brightening the half veil’d face of heaven afar:
So, when dark thoughts my boding spirit shroud,
Sweet Hope, celestial influence round me shed,
Waving thy silver pinions o’er my head.

The human experience of daring to hope that one’s sufferings might improve is a central theme in both poems. Whilst Tiedge considers one must not bother God with human problems, of whose existence he expresses doubt, Keats only addresses “Sweet Hope” of whom he places comfort in, using affectionate language. We get the sense that Keats has a personal connection to Hope.

In contrast Tiedge places less certainty in Hope’s ability to comfort the sufferer than does Keats, who explores his own inner torments such as despondency, disappointment relating to the success of his poetry and his concerns over the social conditions in England. Hope seems more distant to Tiedge than it does for Keats.

Tiedge’s lament over human suffering is of a less personal nature than seen in Keats’ poem,  but the suffering of humankind in general, though of course it is something he can identity with as he uses a personal pronoun in stanza three-“your”  which could be a reference to himself.

Tiedge’s last stanza considers Fate being an obstacle to Hope, suggesting that some experiences are almost impossible to overcome and looks to the Sun to see beyond the usual human eyes; the reference to the human experience being like a dream, and that beyond the Sun, what I sense means Heaven/ the Afterlife lies another existence waiting beyond the physical human one in which a greater understanding of life awaits.

Tiedge’s poem takes his exploration into human suffering further than does Keats, who is writing for the moment, how he feels sat by his “solitary hearth.” Keats ends his poem with a brighter mood; the poem’s aim is to raise his mood and feel more positive about his life.