Advent calendar

Door 16

Door 16

Today’s #geoadvent features a destination popular with geologists and tourists alike – and one which has provided inspiration for musicians, poets, artists and writers for many years…

The island of Staffa, in the Inner Hebrides, features on the cover of our #100geosites 2016 calendar, in this stunning photo taken by Louise Squire.

Staffa c Louise Squire

Staffa c Louise Squire

Staffa is known for its spectacular columnar basalt and overlying ‘slaggy’ basalt, which erupted as lava flows from the Palaeogene Mull volcanic centre. The beautiful and rugged land and seascape has been awing visitors for hundreds of years, but it seems to have struck a particular chord with the 19th century romantics, inspiring poetry, paintings and music.

Staffa c Louise Squire

Staffa c. Louise Squire

Famous visitors included Robert Adam, Walter Scott, John Keats, JMW Turner and Jules Verne. William Wordsworth went there too, although he was a bit sniffy about the fact that there were too many tourists. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were rather more impressed – presumably they were used to seeing lots of people wherever they went.

Perhaps the most significant visitor to Staffa was Felix Mendelssohn during his 1829 tour of Scotland. He finished composing his overture The Hebrides, also known as Fingal’s Cave, on 16 December 1830 – exactly 185 years ago today. Its premiere was in London in 1832, and the popularity of the piece helped make Staffa a tourist destination. Wordsworth didn’t visit until 1833, so Mendelssohn may have been partly to blame for his disappointing experience…

Fingals Cave in the 18th Century © John Cleveley (Source Wikimedia Commons)

Fingals Cave in the 18th Century © John Cleveley (Source Wikimedia Commons)

The Hebrides is an early example of a tone poem, using music to depict a scene and a mood, and was influential on many later romantic composers.

Its opening theme came to Mendelssohn as he entered Fingal’s Cave, at the southern end of Staffa, by boat. He wrote to his sister Fanny: ‘In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there’.

Initial sketch for the theme of the Hebrides Overture, found in a letter dated August 7, 1829 to his sister Fanny. Source: Wikimedia commons

Initial sketch for the theme of the Hebrides Overture, found in a letter dated August 7, 1829 to his sister Fanny. Source: Wikimedia commons

You can hear Mendelssohn’s wonderfully evocative music and see the extraordinary geology and scenery that inspired it in this fantastic video shot by Malcolm Donald on a boat trip to Staffa.

As it is only nine days until Christmas, I feel obliged to point out that Mendelssohn is also the composer of one of the dreariest of all Christmas carols, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. I guess we all have an off day from time to time.

Nat King Cole and his arranger have tried to throw everything they can at trying to make it sound interesting in this version.

Nope, sorry, it’s still awful.

3 thoughts on “Door 16

  1. Really enjoy this website generally speaking – and always love the December advent cal near – today’s entry is Awesome!

  2. Pingback: Door 24: Christmas greetings from the geoadvent blog team! | Geological Society of London blog

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