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AN OVERTURE IN BASALT

GEOLOGY AND MUSIC seemed like a strange mix. Until, that is, I learned more about Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 26, The Hebrides, which is also known as Die Fingalshöne, Fingal’s Cave.

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Jacob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, 1809 – 1847. Early Romantic composer who also revived interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

German composer Felix Mendelssohn was a child prodigy, playing piano in concert at age six. By the time he was 14, he had written 12 string symphonies.

At age 20, Mendelssohn toured the British Isles for the first time and was much taken by the Hebrides archipelago off the west coast of mainland Scotland. There, on the island of Staffa, he visited Fingal’s Cave, a sea cave known for its outstanding natural acoustics.

In a travel note to his sister Fanny, Felix wrote, “In order to make you understand how extraordinary the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came to my head there.” Mendelssohn included a sketch accompanied by a brief musical passage destined to be the opening of his Opus 26, the Fingal’s Cave Overture.

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Hebrides sketch by Felix Mendelssohn; the original in the Music Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Image from Kosboot.

Fingal’s Cave was brought to the world’s attention in 1772 by British naturalist Sir Joseph Banks. Its name comes from the hero of an epic poem by 18th-century Scots poet-historian James Macpherson. By the time of Mendelssohn’s visit in 1829, its geological fame gave it touristic interest.

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An engraving based on sketches, 1772, by John Cleveley Jnr.

Geologically, Fingal’s Cave is a Paleocene lava flow, its surfaces formed from columns of basalt, the most common volcanic rock. Its spectacular hexagonal shapes are the result of cooling: As the flow cools, internal forces of contraction build up. Whereas the flow can shrink vertically without fracturing, its contraction in the horizontal direction leads to an extensive network of fractures.

Polygons of three to twelve sides can be formed, but the dynamics of cooling promotes formation of hexagons. Slow cooling leads to large ones; quicker cooling, to smaller cross sections.

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Basalt columns inside Fingal’s Cave, Isle of Staffa, Scotland. Image by de:Benutzer:Karl Gruber.

The Giant’s Causeway is another renowned display of basalt hexagons, in this case, some 40,000 interlocking examples. It’s located in County Antrim on the northeast coast of Northern Ireland, one of its most popular tourist attractions.

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The Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Image from Kaitlyn O’Hagan, macaulay.cuny.edu. Below, closeup of the Giant’s hexagonal artwork. Image by Matthew Mayer.

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Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave is termed, in the sense of the Romantic era, an overture. However, it’s not an opening to anything else. The work stands alone as a tone poem describing a place of dramatic beauty.

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Fingal’s Cave, an overture in basalt. Image from The Telegraph.

There are several YouTube offerings of Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave. They’re all nine to eleven minutes in length; my favorites are the one showing Hebrides scenery, not concert orchestras. I believe Mendelssohn would concur. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

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