Seascape in the mist: Lost in Mendelssohn’s Hebrides

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Mendelssohn’s overture The Hebrides or Fingal’s Cave is regularly considered the musical landscape (or seascape) painting par excellence . Scarcely another work has such an unerring capacity to suggest the wide horizons, delicate nuances of changing color and light, the ceaseless rolling of the ocean breakers and free dom of the sea. Nevertheless, despite the popularity of this idea of musical landscape since the early nineteenth century, it is far from clear analytically or phenomenologically how the predominantly aural and temporal experience of music might convey a sense of visual space that would appear central to the perception of landscape. This article explores Mendelssohn’s archetypal example of the musical seascape in order to unravel these concerns. After briefly charting the philosophical reefs that encircle this issue, I examine how the aural may nevertheless translate to the visual, and thus how music might create its own, virtual landscape. Travelling beyond this, however, we reach the limits of mimesis and the visual for explaining Mendelssohn’s overture, uncovering his music’s implications for mythic-historical and personal memory, synaesthesia, and the embodied subject. Ultimately I argue for a more ecomusicological understanding of Mendelssohn’s work as embodying a critical reading of a fragile human subjectivity within nature, an immersive projection of the wild, northern sublime.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)187–222
Journal19th-Century Music
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2016


  • Musical Landscape
  • Musical Ecology
  • Northern Sublime
  • Mendelssohn
  • Hebrides

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