The First Walpurgis Night, Op. 60 – cantata

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) composed his cantata The First Walpurgis Night (Die erste Walpurgisnacht, op. 60) in 1831 to Goethe’s eponymous poem. The ballad evokes the ritual of the mediaeval Walpurgis Night and takes us back to times when the druids upheld their faith in the face of Christianity and practiced their pagan rituals.

Involving singer soloists, a choir and an orchestra, the cantata consists of an overture and nine uninterrupted movements. The overture presents the storms of winter which is followed by a transition to an atmosphere of spring. In the first movement (No. 1 Es lacht der Mai [May is in full bloom]) the druids greet the month of May, but an elderly woman warns them that death awaits anyone caught attending a forbidden ritual (No. 2 Könnt ihr so verwegen handeln? [Could you be so rash, so daring?]). To which the druid priest calls his people (No. 3 Wer Opfer heut zu bringen scheut [Whoever fears to sacrifice]) to do their duty, while the watchmen patrol the forest (No. 4 Verteilt euch, wackre Männer, hier [Divide your forces, valiant men]). They keep away Christians by dressing up as demonic creatures and making a big noise (No. 5 Diese dummen Pfaffenchristen [Christians and their priests are witless] and No. 6 Kommt mit Zacken und hit Gabeln [Come with prongs and pitchforks]) while the druid priest begins the solemn ritual (No. 7 So weit gebracht, dass wir bei Nacht [It’s come so far that now by night]). The approaching Christians are scared off by the demonic creatures (No. 8 Hilf, ach hilf mir, Kriegsgeselle [Help, oh help me, comrade]) and the druids reinforce their faith with flames of fire (No. 9 Die Flamme reinigt sich vom Rauch [The flame is purified by smoke]). (László Gombos)

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