Reformation Symphony (Mendelssohn)

Program note

From simple beginnings, Mendelssohn builds a mighty fortress indeed


I. Andante –Allegro con fuoco
II. Allegro vivace
III. Andante
IV. Andante con moto

In 1830 Mendelssohn sent a copy of his new untitled symphony to his sister, Fanny:

Try to collect opinions as to the title I ought to select: ‘Reformation’ Symphony, ‘Confession’ Symphony, Symphony for a Church Festival, ‘Juvenile’ Symphony or whatever you like. Write to me about it and instead of all the stupid suggestions, send me one clever one; but I also want to hear all the nonsensical ones that are sure to be produced.

Whether or not Mendelssohn considered ‘Reformation’ Symphony a stupid name, it was the name that stuck, with the full title ‘Symphony for the Festival of the Reformation of the Church’ appearing on the first title page. The symphony was composed for the three-hundredth anniversary celebrations of the Augsburg Confession (the moment that signifies the birth of the Protestant church): celebrations that failed to take place due to civil unrest. To make matters worse, the orchestra of the Paris Conservatoire, who were the next to consider giving the premiere, rejected the symphony as ‘dry and scholastic’, citing ‘too much counterpoint, too little melody.’

This was something of a shock for the young composer: an attack not just on himself, but on counterpoint itself, which was his homage to his beloved Bach. The premiere performance did not take place until 1832, at the Singakademie in Berlin; and the work was not published until after the composer’s death, which explains why his second symphony is now known as No 5.

Musicologist Charles Rosen claims that ‘Mendelssohn is the inventor of religious kitsch in music.’ He defines this as music that ‘substitutes for religion itself the emotional shell of religion.’ Such comments may recall the Fascist attempts to remove Mendelssohn from the canon: ‘Mendelssohn was an Ersatz for German master’, wrote critic Karl Grunsky, in 1935. However, Rosen sees the ‘pseudo-religious’ or ‘hyper-religious’ in Mendelssohn as an important part of his legacy. Mendelssohn, Rosen maintains, begat Franck and Saint-Saëns at their most pious, and even Wagner.

Much has been made of the similarities between the Reformation Symphony and Wagner’s ‘Grail’ motif in the opera Parsifal. Both composers drew on the well-known (and still sung today) ‘Dresden Amen’ for their material. Wagner’s friend Wilhelm Tappert refuted any allegations of plagiarism on Wagner’s part, claiming that Mendelssohn and Wagner were independently exposed to the ‘Amen’, in Dresden. Rosen, however, suggests that the debt runs deeper. In creating Parsifal, Wagner wanted the audience to feel like participants in a religious experience, and ‘Mendelssohn’s technique of turning his listeners into devout worshippers lay conveniently at hand.’

So how does a composer turn his ‘listeners into devout worshippers’? One way of creating a ‘hyper-religious’ experience is by using already existing religious material. The first movement of the Reformation Symphony opens with a slow and pious introduction, which introduces the ‘Dresden Amen’. The rising intervals create a feeling of ascent, as if the music itself were nudging the listener heavenward. Mendelssohn then launches into a dramatic Allegro con fuoco which develops this material. 

Commentators have suggested this movement describes the ‘reformers’ joy in combat, their firmness of belief and trust in God.’ We hear a religious fervour that verges on ferocity, and then an abbreviated version of the opening – as if the affairs of humanity were interrupted for a moment by God. The movement concludes dramatically, à la JS Bach, with a glorious Tierce de Picardie – an unexpected major chord ending. For the pious, there is always a happy ending, finally.

The middle two movements act as foils to the religious gravitas of the outer two. The second movement is a gracious expression of joy, and grows in exultation and celebration. The third movement, an Andante, is simple in conception, but deeply felt. The theme for the finale appears at the end of the third movement, on flute. It is a statement of a Lutheran hymn – ‘Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott’ (A mighty fortress is our God) – allegedly written by Luther himself. From simple beginnings, Mendelssohn builds a mighty fortress indeed, drawing on all the resources of counterpoint. The work concludes with a triumphant statement of the chorale.

© Anna Goldsworthy, 2001

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