One of the scenes Mendelssohn omitted from his Midsummer Night's Dream incidental music is Shakespeare's well-known play-within-a-play from Act 5. The composer probably thought this scene would work better without music because it marks a dramatic shift away from the atmosphere and style of the rest of the play. In this scene, Theseus, Hippolyta, and the other serious characters drop their verse and speak conversationally, offering a kind of sarcastic running commentary on the atrociously bad play performed in front of them by a group of craftsmen. The craftsmen, meanwhile, swap their conversational dialog for poorly written verse. The whole effect is quite funny on its own, so what should the accompanying music do?
As the composer, it was my job to figure this out. Working out what the piece should be was in this case actually more work than writing the notes. On one hand, the music could be blatantly funny, but I wasn't sure what that would add to the play as written by Shakespeare. On the other hand, the music could be serious, since the intended plot of the play-within-a play is serious, and just the execution is amusingly awful. I felt, however, it would be odd to have entirely serious music for an obviously comic scene. The trick, I realized, would be to write a piece that is seriously intended, but also acknowledges that it's in on the joke, so to speak. For that, I needed something that would be the musical equivalent of a wink to the audience. What I finally devised is a kind of burlesque that reoccurs a few times — particularly when Theseus is making snide comments. It's a vaguely big bandy shtick with a bluesy walking bass. It's not over-the-top funny, but I think it's enough to add some humor to the music. and create an interesting dynamic with the scene which is, after all, a study in the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy.
-- Benjamin Pesetsky
Learn more about Ben's music by visiting his instant encore page or by reading through his program notes (written himself) about his piece below! And don't forget to purchase tickets for this weekend's peformance!