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Felix Mendelssohn

Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany

Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Symphony N.5 'Reformation'

Composed: 1829-30

Premiered: 1832 in Berlin, Germany

In the autumn of 1829, Felix Mendelssohn began a new work with an eye toward a public event to be held in Berlin on June 25, 1830. The occasion was the tercentenary celebration of the Augsburg Confession, the document declaring key tenets of the Lutheran church. Mendelssohn worked tirelessly, despite contracting measles close to the finish line, and by May 1830 had completed an ambitious orchestral work later named the Reformation Symphony. The piece, however, was not performed during the celebration. Instead, a composition by another notable composer of the time, Eduard Grell, was presented. The reason for the exclusion of Mendelssohn’s work remains unclear: some historians point to Mendelssohn’s Jewish background, while others explain that the work was simply completed too close to the event. There were even claims that the event was canceled, which have proven to be untrue. The many conflicting accounts do suggest that the circumstances surrounding the work were ambiguous to be sure. Much has been speculated about Mendelssohn’s motivation to write the Reformation Symphony as well. In fact, Mendelssohn was never commissioned to write a work for the occasion; however, he clearly envisaged it as a statement about Protestantism, calling the work his Kirchensinfonie (church symphony). 

One likely explanation as to his motivation might be Mendelssohn’s own religious and social background. Though Jewish in heritage, he was raised as a Lutheran, having been baptized in 1816 together with his siblings.

His father, Abraham, converted from Judaism to Lutheranism in 1822 and later even urged his son to change his last name to Bartholdy. Felix adopted the name Mendelssohn-Bartholdy instead of dropping his Jewish surname entirely, but he was certainly more familiar with Lutheranism than Judaism. Also, with his strong literary inclinations, he was awestruck by Martin Luther’s monumental work of translating the entire Bible into German. These facts, along with the growing anti-Semitism in Germany and the aspiration of the wealthy and cultured Mendelssohn family to be assimilated into German society completely, may have motivated the composer to present his work during the important event. 


In Spring 1832, the Reformation Symphony was scheduled for its premiere in Paris. But this time, the musicians of the orchestra at the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire refused to play the work. The overall opinion was that the score was “too learned, too much fugato, too little melody.” The work was omitted from the announced program after just one rehearsal, and Mendelssohn was disheartened and humiliated by the experience. Although he revised the score and saw its premiere in Berlin later that year, by 1838 he disdained it and never revisited it. In fact, he even advocated for the score to be set on fire. Mendelssohn’s deep contempt for the work remains not fully explained, although it is well-known that he was a harsh self-critic, a perfectionist, and not one for accepting criticism. It was not until 1868, 21 years after his death, that the work was published (hence its numbering as the fifth symphony, even as it was his second symphonic work). 


While the context of the work entails many uncertainties, its musical program is explicit—it describes the encounter of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church, which eventually culminates in the triumph of the Lutheran Reformation. This narrative is outlined in the two outer movements, through two distinct melodic motives. In the first movement, the first motive has its roots in the Gregorian chant, thus signifying the Catholicity. (Mozart also used it as the opening theme of the fourth movement of his “Jupiter” Symphony.) The second motive is the “Dresden Amen,” a harmonization of a six-note, stepwise ascending melody that was sung in churches in Saxony throughout the 19th century. (Wagner, who famously disliked Mendelssohn, later used this motive in his opera Parsifal.) In the final movement, the Catholic motive does not return, but the “Dresden Amen” does. Also in the finale, the famous chorale “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”), composed by Luther himself, is extensively employed. Moreover, when the chorale is first introduced in the third movement, it is played by the flute, which is another tribute to Luther, who played the German flute. The work ends with an imposing proclamation of “Ein feste Burg.” It is an unmistakable statement celebrating the Reformation—or, it may be Mendelssohn’s unabashed statement of his religious and social stance. 


Some features to listen for…

The solemn Catholic motive appears right at the onset of the work, while the “Dresden Amen” comes immediately after the stately fanfares of the winds. While both melodies have rising contours, their treatments are markedly different. The Catholic theme is woven into an imitative texture, following the musical style of Palestrina, the famous Roman-composer responsible for the development of Catholic church music. Conversely, the “Dresden Amen” is played in unison by the strings in Lutheran simplicity. In the recapitulation, Mendelssohn accentuates the pious nature of this movement by softening the volume (the strings play pizzicato) and slowing down the tempo. 


The inner two movements do not fall neatly into the overall narrative. In fact, the lighthearted and dancelike second movement, which is a minuet and trio, seems to serve as musical repose after the seriousness of the first movement. The brief and gracious third movement can be seen as a prelude to the grand finale: the solo flute’s presentation of the “Ein feste Burg,” which is fully explored in the finale, becomes an introduction to the finale movement. The texture of the final movement is often contrapuntal, similar to Bach’s music. Notably, Bach wrote a cantata titled “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (Cantata BWV 80), based on the same chorale by Luther, exactly 100 years earlier for the bicentennial of the Augsburg Confession. Thus, musically, the Reformation Symphony also can be considered Mendelssohn’s tribute to Bach, a faithful Lutheran himself.  


- Jung-Min Mina Lee, Music Department, Duke University

Another important influence on the Wesendonck Lieder was the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, which Wagner was introduced to by his new acquaintance in Switzerland. In particular, Wagner was profoundly affected by the Buddhist-inspired notions of the denial of the will and the quest for nirvana. While these ideas would form the ideological orientations for his remaining dramatic works, Wagner modified Schopenhauer’s ideas with a personal interpretation. In a letter to Mathilde written in December 1858, Wagner describes sexual love, rather than renunciation of desires, as the “path to salvation” and “complete pacification of the will.” This view manifests powerfully in both the Wesendonck Lieder and Tristan and Isolde, as well as in many of his music dramas—many of his protagonists found liberation from earthly concerns through a sublime sexual union. The Wesendonck Lieder, which portray the angel yearning for sublime bliss and eternity, worldly pains and sorrows, and escape by death, is inseparable from the eroticism and desire that encapsulates Wagner’s unrealized relationship with Mathilde. 


Some features to listen for…

In Der Engle (The Angel), “the supreme bliss of heaven” is represented by gentle rises of the music. When the words describe earthly anxiety and desires, the orchestral accompaniment becomes relatively static, playing the repeated chords, and the key turns to a minor mode. In the Stehe still! (Be Still!), the contrast between the “Rushing, rumbling wheel of time” and “blissful, sweet oblivion” is represented by animated motions in the strings and the more languid music. Wistful ascending melodies permeate Im Treibhaus (In the Hothouse), signifying branches that desperately reach for the air. In Schmerzen (Sorrows), the shift from minor to major indicates the rising of the sun “in [its] former splendor,” or life’s dual gifts of grief and joy. In Träume (Dreams), undulating melodies ride over a delicate heartbeat of chords; they all gently fade away, as the protagonist dreams of “[fading] away upon your breast and then [sinking] into the tomb.” 


- Jung-Min Mina Lee, Music Department, Duke University

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