LIANE HANSEN, host:

One hundred fifty years ago the wedding march was popularized for the first time.

(Soundbite of music, "Wedding March")

HANSEN: This piece was composed by Felix Mendelssohn from the first generation of romantic composers. Joining us now to talk about the story behind the wedding march and more of Mendelssohn's work is music historian Robert Greenberg. He joins us from the studios of member station KQED. Welcome back.

Mr. ROBERT GREENBERG (Music Historian): Thank you so much.

HANSEN: So where was this march first performed?

Mr. GREENBERG: In 1842, Mendelssohn wrote a whole chunk of incidental music for a performance of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." But it wasn't until 1858, some 16 years later, that the march was used in a royal wedding as a recessional by Princess Victoria Adelaide Mary Louise. She was the eldest child of Queen Victoria.

(Soundbite of music, "Wedding March")

Mr. GREENBERG: And, you know, when a royal person does something royal-sounding, everyone wants a piece of the action. And from that moment on, Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" has become a staple in weddings in the German and English-speaking worlds.

HANSEN: Talk a little bit about "Midsummer Night's Dream." Can you give me the overture that Mendelssohn composed for it. He was quite young.

Mr. GREENBERG: Mendelssohn was amazing and at the age of 17 he got it in his head to write an orchestral work that would illustrate the characters of this, his favorite play. And so this is the piece that's called an overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and it is one of the masterworks.

(Soundbite of music, "Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream")

HANSEN: Between the ages of 12 and 14 Mendelssohn composed 12 string symphonies.

Mr. GREENBERG: Yes, and four operas and countless other works. He came from a very wealthy banking family, grew up in Berlin. His parents wanted the best for their children. They were overeducated by any standard. Mendelssohn could speak multiple languages as a young child, he was an excellent water colorist. He read Homer in the original by the time he was 10. This kind of annoying person. And…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREENBERG: …music was just another one of those things he mastered as a young man. He had the best teachers and his father would hire private orchestras to perform the music. So Mendelssohn could actually learn on the job as a preteen and as a teenager in a way that, well, pretty much no one else ever had a chance to learn.

HANSEN: He was able to compose his first symphony for a full orchestra at 15. And his first masterwork, this is the "Octet for Strings," and he was 16. Let's first listen to a little of it.

(Soundbite of music, "Octet for Strings")

HANSEN: What makes this a master and what were the circumstances of Mendelssohn's composition?

Mr. GREENBERG: It is what we call a double-stringed quartet. It's eight strings but there are arrayed as two separate string quartets. But the themes are brilliant, the way he manipulates the themes, that is the way he develops them, is utterly mature and so, so very clever.

HANSEN: How many times do you think his music is played between Valentine's Day and the Fourth of July?

Mr. GREENBERG: If I'm an ancestor of Mendelssohn I'm doing everything I can to figure out a way to get residuals out of those performances. Because don't you know it, it's like happy birthday. You can't have the event without having the music.

HANSEN: Music historian Robert Greenberg. He's with San Francisco Performances and the Teaching Company, which markets recorded lectures in the arts and sciences. He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks a lot.

Mr. GREENBERG: My great pleasure.

HANSEN: Cue the recessional, cue the organist.

(Soundbite of music, "Wedding March")

HANSEN: Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" celebrating 150 years since it was popularized. To hear more by Mendelssohn and discover much more classical music, go to our Web site at NPR.org/music.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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