The young Felix Mendelssohn’s acquaintance with Acis and Galatea was due to Carl Friedrich Zelter, his composition teacher and conductor of the Berlin Singakademie. In 1828 Zelter asked Mendelssohn, by then a student at Berlin’s university, to produce rescored versions of both Acis and Galatea and the Dettingen Te Deum for the use of the Singakademie. According to Fanny these orchestrations were a quid pro quo for obtaining Zelter’s blessing on Felix’s proposed revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and securing the cooperation of the Singakademie in the venture, which came to fruition on 11 March 1829.
The reason behind Mendelssohn’s re-orchestration, lay in the complete change of orchestral texture that occurred between the first and second halves of the 18th century in the transition from the Baroque to the Classical era. With the gradual abandonment of the keyboard continuo in the second half of the 18th century, its filling-in role was taken over by the wind and brass as well as by a fuller string texture. For most numbers Mendelssohn first wrote out the new material for viola, wind and brass separately, and this was then incorporated with Handel’s original parts into a new score.
This recording of Mendelssohn’s arrangement of Handel’s Acis and Galatea is a true Oxford project. Not only are the performers (the Oxford Philomusica and the Choir of Christ Church) central in the musical life of the city, but Mendelssohn’s original score is here in the Bodleian Library. Add to that the fact that Handel conducted the work in the Great Hall in Christ Church in 1743 and it is easy to see why I was so excited to be performing it in this new edition of the Oxford manuscript. I set out to view this score through the lens of the early 19th century. It runs counter to the spirit of our own age to take an iconic work from the past and translate it into a contemporary culture, but this was not so in Mendelssohn’s day. His achievement is not only to pay homage to the dramatic and musical skill of Handel but also to stamp his arrangement with his own identity. The result is compelling and has an integrity of its own, providing a fascinating insight into Mendelssohn’s imagination as a composer.
Stephen Darlington, 2012