Incidental music is a term applied to music composed for a play. There might be only an overture or entr’acte, or the music might fit into the actual play, as a song or a dance, for example. Perhaps the best-known incidental music is also by Mendelssohn, for Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Athalie” is a biblical tragedy by France’s Shakespeare, Jean Racine (1639-1699). The story derives from the “Book of Kings” and the “Chronicles” and recounts regicide, infanticide and familial genocide. The title character, who is responsible for much of this slaughter, is daughter of Jezebel, the infamous queen of Israel, and widow of Joram, king of Judah.

Motivated by vengeance for Judah’s extermination of her parents’ family, she seeks to exterminate her in-laws’ family, the House of David, including her own grandchildren.

One, however, is saved, and he is secretly raised in the Temple by the High Priest, awaiting the day to reclaim the throne.

The King of Prussia asked Mendelssohn to compose music for a revival of the play in 1842. Racine had modeled this work on the Greek manner, wherein a chorus figured prominently, summarizing the action and import at the end of each act and occasionally advancing the action.

He had intended that the chorus be sung. This method gave Mendelssohn a vast tableau and much fine poetry to compose.

The music is heroic, majestic and dramatic in Mendelssohn’s finest oratorio style. It ranks among his most affecting large works. Yet it is rarely heard for the very reason that it so closely depends on the play for context. Seventeenth-century French tragedy simply isn’t produced often in America.

It so happens that a Victorian gentleman, a Mr. W. Bartholomew, Esq., versified a dramatic synopsis of the play, evidently for the express purpose of supplementing the music, an interesting reversal of relationships. But his effort does allow an audience to hear this wonderful music with a clear sense of its dramatic setting. It is in this form that the work will be presented.

Poet and Bates College Professor Rob Farnsworth will be the reader. Several members of the Androscoggin Chorale will appear as soloists within the large choral ensemble. Pianist Bridget Convey will transmute the orchestral score.

Performances will be in Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Church at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 22; and at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 23, in Lewiston’s Franco-American Heritage Center at St. Mary’s.

Advance tickets are $15 for adults, $14 for seniors; $17.50 at the door. Student tickets are half-price; and children 12 and under will be admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Tickets are available at Lewiston and Auburn Hannaford and Shaw’s supermarkets, Mr. Paperback and Mainely Drumz in Lewiston; at Starbird Music in Portland; by calling the Maine Music Society at 782-1403; or by visiting their Web site at www.mainemusicsociety.org.


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