Felix Mendelssohn: ‘His music is a reflex of his life; grace, elegance, culture, and finish are its characteristics.’

Felix Mendelssohn: ‘His music is a reflex of his life; grace, elegance, culture, and finish are its characteristics.’

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, the son of a Berlin banker, was born at Hamburg, Feb. 3, 1809, and, unlike almost all other composers, was reared in the lap of luxury. Every advantage which wealth could procure he enjoyed, with the result that he became highly educated in the other arts as well as in music. His teachers in music were Zelter and Ludwig Berger, and he made such progress that in his ninth year he appeared in public as a pianist in Berlin, and afterwards in Paris. The first of his compositions to attract general notice were the overture to Shakspeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the little opera “The Marriage of Camacho,” which were brought out in Berlin in 1827. After several concert tours, in which he met with great success, he resided for some time in Düsseldorf. In 1835 he went to Leipsic as director of the famous Gewandhaus concerts,–which are still given in that city. Two years later he married Cécile Jeanrenaud, the beautiful daughter of a minister of the Reformed Church in Frankfort, and shortly afterwards went to Berlin as general director of church music. In 1843 he returned to his former post in Leipsic, and also took a position in the newly established Conservatory, where he spent the remainder of his days in company with his family, to whom he was closely attached. He has left a large and rich collection of musical works, which are favorites the world over. His three great oratorios are the “Hymn of Praise,” catalogued as a symphony-cantata, “St. Paul,” and “Elijah.” The last is specially interesting, as it marked a new departure from the conventional forms of oratorio, and gave the widest scope to the dramatic elements,–to such a degree, in fact, that it might with propriety be styled a sacred opera. Besides these oratorios, his exquisite music to the “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which is familiar the world over, and his stately dramatic music to “Antigone,” he has left five symphonies, of which the “Scotch,” the “Italian,” and the “Reformation” are best known; four exquisite overtures, “Ruy Blas,” “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” “Hebrides,” and “Melusina;” the very dramatic cantata, “The Walpurgis Night;” a long list of beautiful songs for one or more voices; the incidental music to Racine’s “Athalia;” a very large collection of sacred music, such as psalms, hymns, anthems, and cantatas; several beautiful trios and other specimens of chamber-music; and the lovely “Songs without Words,” which are to be found upon almost every piano, the beauty and freshness of which time has not impaired. Mendelssohn never wrote a grand opera, owing to his fastidiousness as to a libretto; though he finally obtained one from Geibel, on the subject of the “Loreley,” which suited him. He had begun to write it, and had finished the finale to the first act, when death interrupted his work, Nov. 4, 1847.

Mendelssohn was a man of remarkable beauty, and his character corresponded to his charm of person. He had a liberal education, was a man of broad culture, a clever artist, and a very skillful writer, as is shown by his volumes of letters from Italy and Switzerland. Possessed of these graces of mind and person, and having all the advantages that wealth could bestow, he lacked those incentives which in other composers have brought out the deepest, highest, and most majestic forms of musical expression. His music is a reflex of his life; grace, elegance, culture, and finish are its characteristics.

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Symphony No. 2, ‘Lobgesang’ (Hymn of Praise)

 

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 (‘Hymn of Praise’), Halle Orchestra and Youth Choir, conducted by Sir Mark Elder

 

The “Lobgesang” (“Hymn of Praise”) was written at Leipsic in 1840, the occasion, which gave birth to it being the fourth centennial celebration of the art of printing. The musical features of the festival were entrusted to Mendelssohn, the ceremonies occupying two days, June 24 and 25 of the above year. On the evening of the 23d there was a performance of Lortzing’s opera, “Hans Sachs,” written for the occasion. On the morning of the 24th there was a service in the church, followed by the unveiling of the statue of Guttenberg in the public square, and an open-air performance of the composer’s “Festgesang” for two choirs, with trombone accompaniment, David conducting one choir, and Mendelssohn the other. In the afternoon of the 25th the “Hymn of Praise” was given for the first time in St. Thomas’s Church, preceded by Weber’s “Jubilee Overture” and Handel’s “Dettingen Te Deum.” Lampadius, who was present at the performance, says:–

“The work called out the greatest enthusiasm, which could hardly be repressed within bounds even by the fact that the audience were seated within the walls of a church. After the first duet a subdued whisper of applause ran through the edifice and betrayed the suppressed delight of the listeners. On one of the evenings following, a torchlight procession was made in honor of the great composer. Mendelssohn, who then lived in Lurgenstein’s Garden, appeared at the window, his face lighted up with joy. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said in his neat, quiet way, with a sensible trembling of the voice, ‘you know that it is not my manner to make many words; but I heartily thank you.’ A loud ‘Hoch!’ three times shouted, was our reply.”

Its next performance was at Birmingham, Sept. 23, 1840, Mendelssohn himself conducting. After this performance it was considerably changed, and the whole scene of the watchman was added. The idea occurred to him after a sleepless night, during which, as he informed a friend, the words, “Will the night soon pass?” incessantly came into his mind.

The title given to the “Hymn of Praise,” “a symphony-cantata,” was first suggested by his friend Carl Klingemann, of London, as will be seen by the following interesting extract from a letter written by Mendelssohn to him, Nov. 18, 1840:–

“My ‘Hymn of Praise’ is to be performed the end of this month for the benefit of old invalided musicians. I am determined, however, that it shall not be produced in the imperfect form in which, owing to my illness, it was given in Birmingham; so that makes me work hard. Four new pieces are to be added, and I have also much improved the three sets of symphonies, which are now in the hands of the copyist. As an introduction to the chorus, ‘The Night is passed,’ I have found far finer words in the Bible, and admirably adapted to the music. By the by, you have much to answer for in the admirable title you hit on so cleverly; for not only have I sent forth the piece into the world as a symphony-cantata, but I have serious thoughts of resuming the first ‘Walpurgis Night’ (which has been so long lying by me) under the same cognomen, and finishing and getting rid of it at last. It is singular enough that at the very first suggestion of this idea I should have written to Berlin that I was resolved to compose a symphony with a chorus. Subsequently I had not courage to begin, because the three movements were too long for an introduction; and yet I never could divest myself of the impression that something was wanting in the shape of an introduction. Now the symphony is to be inserted according to my original intention, and the piece brought out at once.”

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The text to the “Hymn of Praise” is not in narrative form, nor has it any particular dramatic significance. It is what its name indicates,–a tribute of praise. Lampadius says the composer undertook to show “the triumph at the creation of light over darkness. With his pious and believing heart he could easily enter into that theme, and show with matchless power and skill the closing-in of those ancient foes, and the victory of light when darkness cowered and ignobly shrank away.” The expression of delight over this victory is very well brought out, not only in the music, but also in the arrangement of the Scriptural texts, which begin with exhortations of praise, and appeals to those who have been in distress and affliction to trust the Lord. The tenor, who may be regarded as the Narrator, calls upon the Watchman, “What of the night?” The response comes that the night has passed. In exultation over the victory, once more the text ascribes praise to the Lord. “All that has life and breath” sings to His name.

The symphony is in three parts, beginning with a maestoso movement, in which the trombones at once give out the choral motive, “All that has life and breath sing to the Lord,”–a favorite theme of Mendelssohn. This movement, which is strong and energetic in character, is followed by an allegretto based upon a beautiful melody, and to this in turn succeeds an adagio religioso rich in harmony. The symphony clearly reflects the spirit of the cantata, which follows. The opening chorus (“All that has Life and Breath”) is based upon the choral motive, and enunciates the real hymn of praise. It moves along in a stately manner, and finally leads without break into a semi-chorus, “Praise thou the Lord, O my Spirit,” a soprano solo with accompaniment of female voices. The tenor in a long dramatic recitative (“Sing ye Praise, all ye redeemed of the Lord”) urges the faithful to join in praise and extol His goodness, and the chorus responds, first, the tenors, and then all the parts, in a beautiful number, “All ye that cried unto the Lord.” The next number is an exquisite duet for soprano and alto with chorus (“I waited for the Lord”). It is thoroughly devotional in style, and in its general color and effect reminds one of the arias, “O Rest in the Lord” from “Elijah,” and “The Lord is mindful of His own” from “St. Paul.” This duet is followed by a sorrowful, almost wailing tenor solo, “The Sorrows of Death had closed all around me,” ending with the piercing, anxious cry in recitative, “Watchman! will the Night soon pass?” set to a restless, agitated accompaniment and thrice repeated. Like a flash from a cloud comes the quick response of the chorus, “The Night is departing,” which forms the climax of the work. The chorus is beautifully constructed, and very impressive in its effect. At first the full chorus proclaims the night’s departure; it then takes the fugal form on the words, “Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness,” which is most effectively worked out.

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In the finale the male voices are massed on the declaration, “The Night is departing,” and the female voices on the response, “The Day is approaching;” and after alternating repetitions all close in broad, flowing harmony. This chorus leads directly to the chorale, “Let all Men praise the Lord,” sung first without accompaniment, and then in unison with orchestra. Another beautiful duet, “My Song shall always be Thy Mercy,” this time for soprano and tenor, follows, and prepares the way for the final fugued chorus, “Ye Nations, offer to the Lord,” a massive number, stately in its proportions and impressive in its effect, and closing with a fortissimo delivery of the splendid choral motive, “All that has Life and Breath.”

Notwithstanding that the choral part is brief as compared with the “St. Paul” and “Elijah,” there are many critics who are inclined to pronounce the “Hymn of Praise” Mendelssohn’s greatest work. In its combination of the symphony and the voice parts, the one growing out of the other and both so intimately connected, it stands almost alone. Some critics have condemned Mendelssohn for imitating Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, though in that colossal work the chorus is not only subordinate to the symphony, but is even trifling in length as compared with it, and very inferior in style. While in Mendelssohn’s work the symphony is subordinated to the choral part, and serves only as an introduction to it, they are yet conventionally connected; but in Beethoven’s work the chorus was the product of necessity, as the idea could not have been developed without it. The instruments had gone as far as possible; the voices must speak.

 

Excerpt from The Standard Oratorios: Their Stories, Their Music, And Their Composers

by George P. Upton

Chicago, A.C. McLurg and Company (1893); Copyright BY A.C. McClurg and Co. (A.D. 1886)

Published at The Gutenberg Project