Potsdam, Neues Palais© Robert W. Eshbach, 2013

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In the Court of Friedrich Wilhelm IV:

A Work of Timeless Quality



Potsdam, Neues Palais

Felix’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was “dreamt for the first time” (as his sister Fanny put it) on Saturday, October 14, 1843, in the theater of the Neues Palais in Potsdam. The private command performance, in anticipation of the king’s 48th birthday, was followed by a series of sold-out public performances in Berlin’s Schauspielhaus on October 18, 19, 20 and 21. On the 18th, Fanny reported to her sister Rebecka:

…the entire cadre of Leipzig musicians came in order to attend the festival: Hiller, David, Gade, and a darling 12-year-old Hungarian, Joachim, who is such a clever violin player that David doesn’t know what more to teach him, and such a sensible boy, that he rode here on the train alone, lives alone in the “Rheinischen Hof,” and it seems perfectly natural that he should do so.

Thirteen years later, Joseph still recalled with pride how he had traveled on his own from Leipzig, and “how it pleased me to see myself entered in the hotel register as a ‘grammar-school student.’” [ii] Berlin’s Rheinischer Hof Hotel was conveniently located at the corner of Leipzigerstrasse and Friedrichsstrasse, a block away from the Mendelssohn home, and a short walk from the theater where the Midsummer Night’s Dream was to be performed.

The premiere was preceded by several days of Mendelssohn family festivities, including an evening at Felix’s younger brother Paul’s “where everybody that could fiddle fiddled, and everybody that could play played, but unfortunately not a soul amongst us had the smallest voice for the smallest song, everyone being an instrumentalist.” [iii] On that evening, Joseph’s sang-froid was tested when Mendelssohn cajoled the young Teufelsbraten to “jump in” for the absent violinist Hubert Ries. After they tuned, 23 year-old Royal Concertmaster Leopold Ganz, who had taken the viola part, said to Joseph: “All right, you poor little worm, now you’ll have to pull yourself together like hell — because this is a completely different matter than playing a couple of little solos.” Joseph acquitted himself well, and Mendelssohn afterward said with a smirk: “so, dear Ganz, the poor little worm played his part better than you thought he would!” [iv]

The little worm was present, along with a host of invited notables, at the dress rehearsal of the play. [1] He later recalled to Moser how, during a break in the rehearsal, he had taken the air with Niels Gade, Karl Eckert and the notorious know-it-all Ami de Beethoven, Anton Schindler. Schindler, famously obnoxious about his former relationship with Beethoven, prattled on to such an extent that an exasperated Gade finally turned to young Joseph, and in his ungrammatical German said: “let yourself be educated by this long, wise man; I have already learned enough” [2] — and hastened away with Eckert on his arm, leaving the long and the short to promenade together. [v]

Potsdam, Schloßstraße


Hotel zum Einsiedler, Potsdam

The premiere performance occurred that evening. “At the Einsiedler [3] there is not another room to be had,” Fanny Mendelssohn wrote to her sister Rebecka, “so we seven ladies arranged our hair in Felix’s room, and then proceeded to the palace.” The audience assembled in the tiny royal amphitheater — the King and Queen, Princes and Princesses in the lower semicircle, and behind them, members of the royal household. The loges were reserved for the invited guests. Surrounding Joseph were the Mendelssohns, David, Hiller, Gade, Schindler, Alexander von Humboldt, the historians Friedrich von Raumer and Leopold von Ranke, classicist August Boekh (who had collaborated with Mendelssohn on his Antigone), poet August Kopisch, writer and salonnière Bettina von Arnim, Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, Feodor von Wehl, poet and critic Ludwig Rellstab, and novelist Willibald Alexis (author of The Werewolf) — in short, the artistic and intellectual elite of the realm. [vii]

Potsdam, Sanssouci, Theater im Neuen Palais


Theater, Royal Palace, Potsdam

The little theater had been specially reconstructed with at three-tiered stage, following Tieck’s understanding of Elizabethan practice. At Tieck’s insistence, the costumes (which met with a mixed reception) were in 17th-century Spanish style. Tieck and Mendelssohn had arranged the play such that it could be performed without interruption; [4] in the middle acts, the changes of scene were marked only by Mendelssohn’s musical interludes. Fanny’s vivid description of the performance captures the excitement and wonder that Joseph must have shared, sitting with the Mendelssohn family and the King of Prussia in these fairy-tale surroundings:

…the clowns were for the most part excellent, and even Gern, who to the terror of the fairies played the part of Bottom, was better than I had expected. The fairies, about thirty children from the dancing school, were charming; and when they trooped into the theatre to the strain of that lovely march, the effect was quite magical. But the most beautiful part of the whole piece and the only thing which I never thought much of in reading the play, is the last scene, where the court goes off in procession to the splendid wedding-march, and you hear the music gradually dying away in the distance, till suddenly it breaks into the theme of the overture, and Puck and the fairies re-appear on the empty stage. I assure you it is enough to make one cry. The interludes are real masterpieces, and were performed to perfection. Never did I hear an orchestra play so pianissimo. The three middle acts are separated by music alone, the curtain not falling at all; after the second comes a wonderful piece, representing Hermia seeing Lysander, which suddenly changes to a mad burlesque at the moment that the clowns appear in the forest expressing their delight at the beauty of the scene by comical gestures. It is irresistibly ludicrous. How delighted all the children of Berlin will be with this piece, for the lion and the ass are splendid. The ass opens its mouth wide and puts out its tongue, and when pretty Peas-blossom in a little red cap and tiny Mustard-seed set to work to scratch its head, I can assure you, Walter, it is fine! But I must describe the Lion’s costume. His jacket and trousers are of yellow-gray felt, his wig, made of shavings, hangs down to the ground, and his tail is an enormously long wisp of straw fastened on in an almost indecorously natural manner. Thisbe’s attire is rather too extravagant for my taste: one of her stockings is hanging down, and she pulls it up when one of the courtiers remarks that Pyramus might hang himself with her garter; she has nothing womanly about her except a towel arranged as a drapery. The dead-march for her and Pyramus is really stupendous; I could hardly believe up to the last that Felix would have the impudence to bring it before the public, for it is exactly like the mock preludes he plays when you cannot get him to be serious. [ix]

Potsdam Palais Throne Room


Throne Room of the Royal Palace, Potsdam

In Dresden, Tieck had for years been told that a revival of this long-dead play was an impossibility — yet he had longed to attempt it. Then, in Berlin, his lively and characterful reading of the play in court had prompted the King to ask: “Is it really a fact that this piece cannot be performed on stage?” For Tieck, “thunderstruck,” the King’s question and subsequent request came as the fulfillment of a “dream” of his own. [xi] What place did a “historic” work have in the world of modern art? Could the spirit of a centuries-old comedy be resuscitated? Could an ancient play stir new generations? For their contemporaries, the success of the Tieck/Mendelssohn production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream became the theatrical equivalent of Mendelssohn’s famous revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  “We shall never forget that day,” recalled the dramatist and writer Feodor Wehl, who was present at the premiere “— it was a day in which, under the gaze of an art-loving king, a miracle of interpretation unfolded and gloriously proved that, for the initiates of art there are no impossibilities. In this Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy world seemed truly to have come alive; it arose out of the earth, the breezes, the trees and flowers; it swayed on the boughs and branches; it wafted on the moonbeams. The light, the shade, the sounds, the echo, leaves and blossoms, whispers and singing, yodels and shouts; everything contributed to making the miracle a reality.” [xii]

“I am in a strange mood after this Summer Night’s Dream!” wrote Carl Gustav Carus after a subsequent performance in Dresden:

— How powerfully this whole, colorful world of poetry presses in on me! […] The desire, and the attempt, to take up again great works of the past; to revive and to clarify them in new, well-rounded productions, certainly has incalculable consequences. — It especially brings to a clear conviction what I have always tacitly but strongly believed about all art and knowledge, namely, that the consummate in both should everywhere be regarded and honored “as something timeless.”

For so it surely is! The unimportant, weak, merely elegant or otherwise momentarily alluring belongs to the times — is effective only in its time, and therefore merely transiently; the truly excellent, the great, that which belongs to humanity, also lives forth with humanity; often has more validity and exerts more of an effect after a millennium than in the time of its appearance, and must therefore be continually revived and viewed in a new light. — If, someday, the period of that which Goethe called “world-literature” is fully revealed, the great dramatic works of all times must necessarily also become the property of the stage, and when that has happened they will have a powerful influence on the Bildung and development of a higher humanity. [xiii]


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[1] Mendelssohn had eleven rehearsals in all.

[2] “Lassen du dich nun belehren von diese lange, weise Mann; ich sein schon genug klug davon!”

[3] Hotel zum Einsiedler, Schloss-Strasse 8, opposite the royal stables, was at the time the oldest of Potsdam’s hotels. It had been newly renovated in 1842. Gottfried Emanuel von Einsiedel was born in 1690, and in 1726 received the former Wartenberg house as a gift from King Friedrich I. On that site, he built the “Einsiedlsche Haus,” which continued in later years as the Hotel zum Einsiedler (literally, “the hermit”), an elite Potsdam establishment. [Theodor Fontane, Havelland. Die Landschaft um Spandau, Potsdam, Brandenburg, Berlin: Wilhelm Hertz, 1892, pp. 381-382.] The building was destroyed by English bombers in the night of April 14-15, 1945.

[4] “It had been arranged, according to [Mendelssohn’s] wish, that the whole thing, with the entr’actes, should be played without any pause whatsoever, as in his opinion this was indispensable for the proper effect,” wrote Ferdinand Hiller. “Nevertheless, not only was a long pause introduced, but it was made use of to offer all kinds of refreshments to the Court, so that a full half-hour was taken up with loud talking and moving about, whilst the rest of the audience, who were quite as much invited, though perhaps only tolerated, were sitting in discomfort, and had to beguile the time as best they could. This disregard of artistic considerations, as well as common civility, so enraged Mendelssohn that he hardly took any notice of all the fine things that we had to say to him.” [Hiller/MENDELSSOHN, pp. 213-214.]


Potsdam, Neues Palais

[i] Wikimedia Commons.

[ii] Letter to Gisela von Arnim in: Joachim/BRIEFE I, pp. 325-326.

[iii] Hensel/FAMILIE II, p. 244.

[iv] Moser/JOACHIM 1908, p. 57-58.

[v] Moser/JOACHIM 1898, p. 47.

[vi] http://www.stadtbild-deutschland.org/forum/index.php?page=Thread&threadID=2980

[vii] Wehl/DIDASKALIEN, p. 5.

[viii] Wikimedia Commons.

[ix] Hensel/MENDELSSOHN, pp. 216-217, with translation emendations.

[x] Author’s collection.

[xi] See Feodor Wehl’s description of the events from his Didaskalien, quoted in: William Shakespeare, A Midsommer Nights Dreame, Horace Howard Furness (ed.), Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co. 1895, p. 329.

[xii] Carinthia, Zeitschrift für Vaterlandskunde, Belehrung und Unterhaltung, Ernst Rauscher (ed.), Vol 53, No. 41 (October 10, 1863), p. 328.

[xiii] Carl Gustav Carus: “Ludwig Tieck. Zur Geschichte seiner Vorlesungen in Dresden,” in: Raumer/TASCHENBUCH, pp. 232-235.