The First Walpurgis Night
Concert music from before the twentieth century that sympathetically treats pagan religions suffering from Christian persecution is rare. Felix Mendelssohn’s cantata based on Goethe’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht (the first Walpurgis Night) may be the only important example. As a Christianized Jew who often faced prejudice, Mendelssohn must have found a special appeal in the subject matter.
The text is a dramatic ballad, a short play in verse, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He wrote about the Walpurgis Night theme several times, most notably in the Witches’ Sabbath in Faust. Goethe and Mendelssohn met when the latter was twelve, and they became good friends in spite of an age difference of sixty years. Mendelssohn set the ballad to music in 1833 and heavily revised it in 1843.
Walpurgis Night is the German version of a seasonal celebration found in much of pre-Christian northern Europe. It’s associated with spring, witches, and the Harz Mountains. The ballad is based on legends, but something like it could have happened. It’s set after Charlemagne conquered and Christianized the German lands.
In the story, a community of followers of Odin still practice their old rituals, which have been outlawed. To avoid being caught, members of their group put on devilish costumes and get out rattles, tongs, and pitchforks to frighten the Christian guards away. The stratagem is a complete success. Historically, though, it was a last stand, as Christian dominance swept away all traces of Odin-worship.
Mendelssohn’s music brings the story to life. It opens with an orchestral depiction of a harsh winter, which yields to the sounds of spring. The chorus where the pranksters go out to scare the Christian guards is reminiscent of the fairy music he wrote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The cantata’s closing lines, though, have a sincerity and solemnity that matches his Christian oratorios. “And if they rob us of the old customs,” they ask Odin, “who can rob us of your light?”
Felix Mendelssohn came from a rich Jewish family that converted to Lutheran Christianity when he was a small child. In spite of his family’s standing and the unambiguously Christian music he wrote, such as the Reformation Symphony and St. Paul, he often encountered prejudice. Did he think of the pagans’ situation in the ballad as similar to his own? There’s no clear evidence that he did, yet it’s hard to suppose the analogy escaped his notice.
We know that he greatly enjoyed writing the piece. In an 1831 letter to his family, he wrote, “The monsters and the bearded druid with his trombones that stand blasting away behind him made some royal fun for me.” The revised version was a huge success at its 1843 performance and should be heard more often today.
John Michael Cooper, in Mendelssohn, Goethe, and the Walpurgis Night, wrote: “It is Mendelssohn — so often accused of conforming to the social and religious mores of mainstream society, and of ducking the social issues of his age ... who adopts a critical and aesthetic stance that challenges listeners to question those contemporary mores directly.”
Goethe’s view is perhaps best summed up in the words he has Faust say at the end of his life: “Of freedom and of life he only is deserving / Who every day must conquer them anew.” The pagans in the ballad may be all but defeated, but they have not given up. They find freedom in the wild spaces that are left to them. They keep their light even if their customs have to change.
Mendelssohn’s cantata is, as he said, “royal fun,” and it gives us a valuable reminder. People should be free to peacefully follow their beliefs, even if they’re different from the mainstream.