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Mendelssohn’s Redemption, a reformation re-do

as published in the Virginian-Pilot November 17, 2017
by Daniel W. Boothe

· Orchestra,Symphonicity,Classical Music

Religious services, academic lectures and concert tributes are occurring all over the world this year to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, specifically Oct. 31, when German theologian Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church. It was his quest for truth amidst a rising sentiment of Catholic suspicion.

One of the most famous musicians in history, Felix Mendelssohn, wrote a heartfelt symphony in 1830 titled, “Reformation” with hopes that it would also be performed as part of Europe’s 300th anniversary commemorations at the time. However, it was rejected by musicians who claimed it was unplayable and by critics who scorned its lack of conventional melody.

Mendelssohn came to loathe his own composition. He withdrew it from the public during his lifetime, described it as “juvenile,” and left instructions that it should be burned rather than heard!

Symphonicity will perform it as part of our special “Ode to Hope” concert, not just for this year’s Reformation anniversary but because of the redemption that this particular work of art has truly earned through time.

Mendelssohn was actually born into a family of Jewish heritage. His grandfather Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) is considered to be the preeminent Jewish philosopher of the German Enlightenment. He had six sons, but due to the limitations in professional opportunity of practicing Jews, two sons adopted Catholicism and two others, including Felix’s father, became Protestant.

Felix Mendelssohn was baptised as a Lutheran by age 7, and the family even added the surname “Bartholdy” as a means to conceal their heritage against intolerance. Thus, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy grew up with a rather complicated strain of mixed religious influences and convictions. I believe this can be heard distinctly throughout his “Reformation” symphony.

First, the piece begins with an authoritatively beautiful opening that rings of true Palestrina-like polyphony. It is thick and complex, all common attributes of Catholic church music of the time.

It is answered immediately with a rising chorus of brass and woodwinds that state a repeated fanfare of simple, stately unisons. You can hear this as a rising protest to the thick complexity of the introduction.

These factions oppose each other until being interrupted by a musical cadence common to churches of the day, known as the “Dresden Amen.” And this is only the beginning!

Throughout the symphony, his crystal-clear orchestrations and architecture convey a classical aesthetic but the ethos of Reformationist sounds percolate unmistakably through quickened rhythms and long unison phrases.

To me, his approach becomes akin to a sort of congregational singing from the heart. His programmatic way of weaving meaning into music is why he is truly considered an early composer of the Romantic era.

The final movement dramatically evolves into a glorious hymn of hope. Using one of the most beloved hymns of the Lutheran tradition, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”), the finale transforms the orchestra into one gigantic chorus.

What I find striking is how it conveys, not necessarily a denominational, but a truly universal spiritual quality. It speaks to everyone and anyone who listens with an open heart and mind.

Knowing that Mendelssohn was an admirer and leading advocate of J.S. Bach is instructive. Bach always wrote in the conclusion of most of his scores “To God alone be glory.” The more you learn about Felix Mendelssohn and the more you hear the integrity in his music, the more you might hear what I hear: “To Truth alone be glory.”

His Symphony No. 5 “Reformation” has indeed redeemed itself – for it has revealed that Felix Mendelssohn was more than just a Reformationist in faith, he was a Reformationist in music itself. He proved that the “sound” of truth may not necessarily be heard in its time but if it is born of truth, it will be heard as timeless.