MenHym Lob

Severance Hall
March 5 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

March 7 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.
March 8 – Sunday at 3:00 p.m.


As we prepare for our festival in May 2020 surrounding Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, we are noting for certain concerts how music by various composers was treated in Nazi Germany or other locations.

During Hitler’s regime, Ernst Křenek was criticized for the style of music — it was too “intellectual” and not appealing for regular people.   

At first, Mendelssohn’s music continued to be played, but eventually it was banned because of his Jewish heritage.  Conversely, the Jewish KulturBund (or Cultural Federation), which was formed by the Nazis to strictly limit and ghettoize Jewish arts activities, could present works by Mendelssohn, but was prohibited from playing any “true German music,” including works by Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, and Wagner.

Hymn of Praise [Lobgesang], Opus 52
Symphony-Cantata on Texts from Holy Scripture
(a.k.a. Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major)

Felix Mendelssohn  (1809-1847)
composed 1838-40

At a Glance
Mendelssohn wrote his Lobgesang [Hymn of Praise] in 1838-40 with, among other ideas, the notion that it be performed to celebrate the invention of moveable type by Johann Gutenberg.  (Mendelssohn was, if nothing else, always aware of occasion, and throughout his life worked to mark important events appropriately, at home or, if warranted, in public.)  The completed work, opening with three instrumental movements and concluding with a series of sung movements for chorus and three soloists, was first performed on June 25, 1840, in the Leipzig Thomaskirche.  Following revisions, it was published in 1841.  After Mendelssohn’s death, it was designated and re-published as his “Symphony No. 2,” though it is relatively (but not entirely) clear that he never envisioned giving it that name.

This work runs between 60 and 70 minutes in performance.  Mendelssohn scored it for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, (no percussion), organ, and strings, plus two soprano and one tenor soloist, and mixed chorus.

  The Cleveland Orchestra has presented this work on only one previous occasion, at a weekend of concerts in 1988 conducted by Jahja Ling.

About the Music
Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, Felix Mendelssohn composed thirteen symphonies for strings (with occasional surprise entries for percussion).  This was a fluency and profligacy quite at odds with his mature approach to the symphony as a genre.  

His five grown-up symphonies were composed at wide intervals — and regarded with considerable unease by their composer.  Each was admired by the public for the polish and approachability found in all his music.  As was the custom of the day, they were numbered in order of publication, and because Mendelssohn never published the popular “Italian” symphony nor the “Reformation” symphony, which were composed earlier, Nos. 2 (the “Hymn of Praise”) and 3 (the “Scottish”) are “out of order” to our modern, chronologically-obsessed way of thinking.

Just as the “Reformation” Symphony (No. 5) was composed to mark the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession submitted by Luther and Melanchthon to the Emperor Charles V in 1530, the “Hymn of Praise” was intended to mark the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of printing.  To this end he composed an extended choral finale with words taken from Luther’s translation of the psalms, on the grounds that the circulation of the Bible in printed form, at first in the Latin Vulgate, later in German, was a powerful factor in the spread of the Protestant faith.  The 1840 celebrations were held not in the city of Mainz, where Gutenberg had worked, but in Leipzig, the center of the book and publishing trade in Germany.

In his new work, Mendelssohn was deliberately building on the prestige of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which similarly crowned three symphonic movements with an elaborate and overwhelming finale involving soloists and chorus.  He had in fact been planning a symphony in B-flat major before the Gutenberg connection arose, the shape of which became instantly clearer once he had decided, like Beethoven, to use words in his finale.  That said, Mendelssohn didn’t, so far as we know, actually call his Hymn of Praise a symphony.  

The second and third movements are shorter than usual in order to allow for a finale in ten (or so) sections — with the last section, thus, as long as the first three movements combined.  In the finale, as in his other symphonic works, Mendelssohn often links sections and movements with continuous music (as, most famously, in his Violin Concerto), or requests that the movements follow one another immediately.  Conversely, and exceptionally, he allows a pause before the finale begins. 

The words are taken mostly from Luther’s translation of the Psalms, with a few passages from elsewhere in the Bible.  Like Handel in Messiah and Brahms in his German Requiem, the composer knew the Bible well enough to make his own selections, for Mendelssohn was a committed member of the Lutheran faith, despite his Jewish ancestry.

The Music
At the beginning of the work’s first movement, the trombones declare the succinct theme that speaks for the work as a whole, and will eventually accommodate the words “Alles was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn” [“All that hath life and breath, sing to the Lord”], the final verse from the final Psalm.  This theme provides the introduction to the first movement and is worked persistently into the movement’s main Allegro section that follows.

The second movement is a delightfully gentle intermezzo featuring two pairs:  violins and cellos in octaves, then oboe and bassoon, also in octaves.  Its middle section is based on the idea of a chorale in the winds, interleaved with snatches of the main section in the strings. 

The third movement is slow and serious, always melodic and richly harmonized, with a sense of religious solemnity fitting for a work that is about to explode in Christian praise.  

When the finale begins, and the trombones recall the symphony’s motto theme, the sense of anticipation is often very palpable in performance — and then the chorus breaks in with a glorious declaration of “Alles was Odem hat.

It is no wonder that this work, along with Mendelssohn’s oratorios Elijah and Saint Paul, were immensely popular in Germany and England in the 19th century.  The choral writing is inventive, like Handel’s, and full of variety, equally distributed between all voices, and not too difficult to sing.  Mendelssohn had a real understanding of the attachment of amateur choral societies, which flourished in every city in Victorian times and with which the composer was well-acquainted, to sacred choral music on biblical themes.

The finale — sometimes viewed as a long, multi-sectioned  fourth movement” in the sense of a traditional symphony — continues in nine (or so) shorter sections, once the substantial first section has been completed.  (The exact breaks between sections have long been debated among musicologists; Mendelssohn’s score, in many, instances, just continues onward.)

Here follows the opening words as sung in the first English performance in Birmingham on September 23, 1840, conducted by Mendelssohn himself — which differ somewhat from the more literal translation of the complete text, which then follows on subsequent pages:

No. 4:  “All that hath breath, sing to the Lord”  (Psalms 150, 145)— Full-blooded choral writing, using the motto theme.

Praise thou the Lord, O my spirit” (Psalm 103) — For soprano solo supported by female voices;

No. 5:  Sing ye praise, all ye redeemed of the Lord” (Psalms 107, 56) — Recitative for solo tenor followed by an aria, which has a flowing part in the inner strings to represent “sorrows” (“tears” in the German text);

No. 6:  All ye that cried unto the Lord” (Psalm 56) — A beautifully restrained chorus, with more depiction of sorrows/tears, here as triplets, most often in the cellos;

No. 7:  “I waited for the Lord, He inclined unto me.” (Psalm 40) ­— This is a lovely example of what in opera was known as a “vaudeville.”  The first soprano solo presents the melody, supported by a solo horn, with a choral closure.  The second soprano then sings the same melody, now with the other soprano and the horn providing counterpoint.  Thirdly, the melody is sung by the chorus tenors and basses with decorations from the two soloists and the horn, leading to a climax.  Mendelssohn adds an elegant coda to close the movement;

No. 8:  “The sorrows of death had closed all around me” (Psalm 116, Isaiah 21) — A scene for tenor solo.  There is underlying tension here until the Lord speaks and minor turns to major.  The last part is the most dramatic part of the work, with the soloist calling to the Watchman, and the soprano soloist finally answering;

No. 9: “The night is departing, the day is approaching” (Romans 13) — A magnificent chorus with organ and full orchestra;

No. 10:  “Now thank we all our God” (Lutheran Hymn by Martin Rinkart, 1647) — This well-known chorale has long been associated with Luther even though it was composed, words and music, a century later.  Mendelssohn had also quoted it in his Reformation Symphony.  The first verse is sung unaccompanied, the second verse with orchestra providing elaborate accompaniment in the manner of Bach;

No. 11:  “My song shall be always Thy mercy” (Psalms 89, 27) ­— This duet for soprano and tenor is accompanied by flutes, bassoons, and strings only, the lower strings sometimes divided to provide a warm, rich sound;

No. 12: “Ye nations, offer to the Lord glory and might”  (Psalms 96, 150) — The final section involves only the chorus and the orchestra.  Inevitably, for a large choral work, it includes a fugue, initiated by the basses with “Danket dem Herrn,” and the return, long awaited, of the symphony’s motto theme on the three trombones, and a final grand cadence from all voices together.

Hugh Macdonald © 2020