Mendelssohn: Lobgesang (Song of Praise), A Symphony-Cantata, Op. 52

Lobgesang Texts

JAKOB LUDWIG FELIX MENDELSSOHN

BORN:  February 3, 1809. Hamburg

DIED: November 4, 1847. Leipzig

COMPOSED:  1840, with some sketches preceding in 1838 and 1839. The work is dedicated to Friedrich August II, King of Saxony. Lobgesang is often identified as Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, although he did not call it that

WORLD PREMIERE:  June 25, 1840, in Leipzig. Mendelssohn conducted

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—At these concerts

INSTRUMENTATION:  2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, organ, and strings, plus three vocal soloists (soprano, soprano or mezzo-soprano, tenor) and a mixed chorus

DURATION: About 70 mins

THE BACKSTORY In 1840, festivities were mounted throughout Germany to mark the quadricentennial of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing by moveable type. In truth, the precise history of his invention is not crystal clear. He was not the only person homing in on the concept, and he seems not to have gotten a press into operation until 1450; but it did at least seem that he was well along in developing his idea in 1440. Once his press was up and running, he took on various printing jobs—some poetry, perhaps grammar texts, certainly a lot of church documents—before he produced the work that would make him famous in posterity, the “Gutenberg Bible,” of which he printed perhaps 160 to 180 copies in 1455, with the first possibly rolling off the press during the preceding year.

In any case, 1840 was agreed upon as the celebratory year. In no city was the event more resonant than in Leipzig, which had long been the center of printing and book production in German-speaking lands. The observance took on strong religious and nationalistic overtones. The Gutenberg Bible had used Martin Luther’s translation of the scriptures, and the fact that the Augsburg Confession, a foundational document of the Lutheran faith drafted by Luther and several colleagues, had been presented on June 25, 1430, inspired the organizers to select June 25 as the culmination of what grew into a three-day festival. The opening night featured a new singspiel by Albert Lortzing about the life of the meistersinger Hans Sachs. The next day included public ceremonies and speeches, the dedication of a Gutenberg statue in Leipzig’s Marktplatz, and the premiere of a Festgesang by the city’s leading musical citizen, Felix Mendelssohn. It was a spatial composition, with a male chorus of 200 plus two brass bands that included sixteen trumpets and twenty trombones positioned around the square.

The festival reached its end on June 25 with a concert that culminated in Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang. When the piece was published the following year, it was headed by a quotation from Martin Luther: “Rather I wished to see all the arts, especially music, serving Him who gave and created them.” The festivities would have been spiritually meaningful to Mendelssohn, who was a Lutheran. Although he had been born into a prominent Jewish family (his grandfather, the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, had charted a rapprochement between traditional Jewish beliefs and those of the Enlightenment), the family converted Lutheranism—Felix and his siblings in 1816, their father in 1822. It was at that point that the members of the family appended the “Protestant-sounding” second name of Bartholdy to their surname. It had already been adopted by Felix’s Uncle Jakob Salomon (his mother’s brother), who had previously converted; Bartholdy was the surname of the family from whom he had purchased a dairy farm. So it was that the Leipzig publishing form of Breitkopf und Härtel released this piece with a title page that, following the Luther quotation, read: Lobgesang / Eine Symphonie-Cantate / nach Worten der heiligen Schrift, componiert / von Felix Mendelssohn- / Bartholdy (Song of Praise / A Symphony-Cantata / after Words of the Holy Scripture, composed / by Felix Mendelssohn- / Bartholdy).

A “Symphony-Cantata”—that was not a standard genre. In the last few decades of the eighteenth century and the first couple of the nineteenth, concertgoers understood clearly what a symphony was: an orchestral work comprising (usually) four movements of contrasting character, an elevated artistic expression that gave voice to the high-level aspirations of its composer. Then in 1824, Beethoven unveiled a work he called a symphony—his Ninth—which was indeed an instrumental piece for its first three movements but in its fourth erupted into something still bigger, with vocal soloists and a full chorus. This (along with other gantlets Beethoven had cast down in his earlier symphonies) set off something of a crisis in the world of orchestral composers; they might imitate him or allude to him or rebel against him, but they could not ignore him.

There is no overlooking the structural similarity between Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang. Mendelssohn’s title makes it clear that he viewed the piece not as just a symphony but rather as a hybrid of two genres, with a nine-movement cantata (employing various combinations of vocal soloists and chorus along with the orchestra) being preceded by a prefatory, three-movement symphony.

In attendance at the premiere was Robert Schumann, who reported on the piece in his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik and noted its kinship to Beethoven’s Ninth “save for the distinguishing difference that the three orchestral movements proceed without any pause between them—an innovation in the symphonic form. No better form could have been selected for this special purpose.” It was a procedure of which Mendelssohn was fond, fusing movements together in such famous concert works as his two piano concertos, his E minor Violin Concerto, and his Scottish Symphony; and Beethoven had already done it in his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. “The work was enthusiastically received,” Schumann continued, “and its choral numbers especially must be counted among the master’s freshest and most delightful creations; and what this praise means, after his great achievements, will be understood by everyone who has followed the evolution of his compositions.”

THE MUSIC The work opens with a call-to-order from the trombones, a theme that will figure in the ensuing movements and ultimately underscore the words (from Psalm 150) that open the “cantata” portion: “Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn” (Everything that has breath praise the Lord). Mendelssohn uses only the three trombones of the standard symphony orchestra, rather than the twenty that had participated in his Festgesang two days earlier; but even three trombones can stir the soul, and the upward-rising phrase they play sets the tone of the piece, in which resoluteness melds with jubilation. When the “cantata” portion begins nearly a half-hour later, the trombones again intone this theme, now against the insistent rhythms of the strings, leading to the chorus’s grand entrance with the same tune. At a performance Mendelssohn conducted in Düsseldorf in 1842, the audience broke into applause when the trombones played it in that cantata introduction even before the chorus entered, so enthusiastically that the composer had to start that section again from the top.

After its introduction, the Symphony (Sinfonia) section veers into the main part of the opening movement, cast in sonata form. A recitative-like transition (based on the opening motto) leads to a second movement with the relaxed swing of a barcarolle; its center section breaks into a chorale-style setting of the motto and the end it drifts off into delicate sonorities that recall his beloved Midsummer Night’s Dream music. After a slight pause, but perhaps not a full-fledged break, the calm, contemplative third movement begins, living up to its indication of Adagio religioso. It ends quietly, bringing the Symphony portion to its conclusion and the first decisive break in the music.

The Cantata occupies slightly more than half of the overall running-time; its nine movements are mostly elided, as were those of the Symphony. It begins with the passage that brought the piece to a halt in Düsseldorf, which—allowed to continue—builds to the stentorian entry of the chorus and an Allegro di molto section in which the choir takes on a Handelian character. The choral forces become divided so as to turn the spotlight for a while on the women’s voices as an independent choir working in tandem with the soprano soloist. Variety informs the ensuing movements: a tenor recitative with fully fleshed-out orchestral accompaniment; the chorus “Sagt es,” where flowing triplet figuration invests a pastoral character; a duet for the sopranos with chorus, which in its English version ( “I waited on the Lord”) gained immense popularity as a standalone anthem in Victorian times and some while beyond; the earnest tenor aria “Strick des Todes,” which (in a reversal of the usual order of things) ends in a highly dramatic recitative. “Die Nacht ist vergangen” (The night has departed), sings the soprano, and the chorus voices its agreement with much counterpoint and again in rather Handelian terms; this enunciates the general idea of the cantata’s text—darkness ceding to enlightenment.

A change of temperament arrives with the a cappella chorus singing “Nun danket alle Gott,” a chorale composed by Johann Crüger; but after presenting it in relatively straightforward fashion in six-voiced harmony, Mendelssohn develops it into a complex chorale prelude with chorus and orchestra. A final duet unrolls with great sensitivity to orchestration; note how the tenor’s opening phrases are accompanied only by the low strings, and how the orchestral timbre lightens with the soprano’s entrance. There remains only the final chorus, which begins with the individual parts proclaiming a phrase of powerful rhythmic contour, tumbles forth with the parts joining in virtuosic polyphony, and, in the coda, gives the trombones, and then everyone else, one last go at the motto theme that has served as the fingerprint of this remarkable Symphony-Cantata.—James M. Keller