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Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 2, 1953, Alfred Wallenstein conducting
Between the ages of 12 and 14 Mendelssohn composed 13 symphonies for strings (with occasional surprise entries for percussion), a fluency quite at odds with his mature approach to the symphony. For the five grown-up symphonies were composed at wide intervals and regarded with considerable unease by their composer, yet usually admired for the polish and approachability we find in all his music. They were numbered according to their order of publication, and since he never published the popular “Italian” Symphony nor the “Reformation” Symphony, they ended up misleadingly numbered 4 and 5.
If the “Reformation” Symphony had been performed according to Mendelssohn’s original intentions, it might have escaped the disdain in which he seems to have held it ever since. Aware that the year 1830 was to be celebrated as the tercentennial of the Augsburg Confession submitted by Luther and Melanchthon to the Emperor Charles V in 1530, Mendelssohn was already thinking about a suitable composition during his adventurous trip to the British Isles in 1829. As a devout Protestant himself and a boundless admirer of Bach (whose St. Matthew Passion he had recently revived in Berlin), Mendelssohn felt drawn by the idea of a symphony that symbolized the Protestant Reformation not with a grand choral work on a sacred text, as might be expected, but with a four-movement symphony without words.
Two other impulses were at work. Since writing his previous symphony “No. 1” in 1824, Mendelssohn, like all alert German musicians, had become aware of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and its overwhelming power. As the bearer of a message of universal brotherhood, it stood as a model of how dramatic a symphony can be, even in its opening three movements, which are not sung. Mendelssohn was always aware that the finale can bear the climactic weight of a symphony, and not be, as one might infer from Haydn or Mozart, a mere happy ending.
The other thread in Mendelssohn’s mind was the pursuit of what later became known as “program music.” He had already composed an overture that depicted the world and action of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and on his visit to the Scottish islands he had begun to sketch out a pictorial overture eventually to be known as The Hebrides. Music as the bearer of a narrative was not new, but it had great attraction to a Romantic generation anxious to illustrate events, places, and feelings with the colorful resources of the modern orchestra.
The “Reformation” Symphony was thus conceived as celebrating the triumph of Protestantism, represented in the finale by Luther’s chorale “Ein feste Burg,” over Catholicism, which is depicted very briefly at the beginning of the Symphony in beautiful, but symbolically old-fashioned Palestrinian polyphony.
After his visit to Scotland in the summer of 1829 Mendelssohn spent a few weeks in north Wales at the home of John Taylor, a wealthy mine-owner, and it was in the depths of a lead-mine there, 500 feet beneath the surface, that Mendelssohn found himself thinking about the conclusion of his Symphony. Back in Berlin by the end of the year, he started the Symphony in earnest and had finished the first three movements by April 13. But he was held up by illness, also perhaps by the feeling that the Symphony had not actually been commissioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm III for the Berlin celebrations planned for the month of June, and by the time he completed the Symphony, May 13, it was too late. Mendelssohn had in any case planned to be gone from the city by then on his next series of foreign adventures, this time to Italy.
On his way south he attempted to get a hearing for the Symphony in Leipzig and Munich but was unlucky in both cities. Early in 1832 he was in Paris, where it was at least tried out under the enterprising baton of François Habeneck. But the orchestra rejected it as “too learned” and it was not until Mendelssohn returned to Berlin that he was able to include the work in a series of concerts he gave in the fall of 1832. By this time he had made a number of revisions, mostly shortening the last movement. Berlin’s leading music critic objected to the idea of a symphony carrying some kind of external message, but whether or not this was enough to turn the composer against his own work, he later refused to have it performed, describing it as “juvenile.” He even said he thought it should be burnt.
Happily for us, the “Reformation” Symphony has survived, and it can give great satisfaction as a four-movement symphony with or without its references to the great events it was intended to celebrate. The two middle movements, after all, have no explicit connection with history but are simply a scherzo and trio followed by an expressive slow movement.
The first movement persuasively carries the notion of conflict, at first in the slow introduction where clarion figures seem to call out for reform over the aspiring counterpoint in the lower strings. Mendelssohn also cites the “Dresden Amen,” a simple rising scale heard twice very softly in widely spaced strings, which he may have regarded as a symbol of the Protestant church even though it was originally intended for the Catholic royal chapel in Dresden and later adopted by both churches. Then the main Allegro, in the minor mode, comes close to Beethovenian anger, dramatically interrupted at the end of the development when the music speeds up almost out of control, only to be stopped in its tracks by the strings quietly singing out the Dresden Amen and bringing order out of chaos.
The Scherzo second movement might well have struck its composer as juvenile since it evokes the world of Haydn, or perhaps early Beethoven, although its Trio is closer to Mendelssohn’s own style in its elegant melodiousness. The slow movement resembles a vocal aria, the voice line entrusted to the first violins, and like an aria it is compact and short.
At this point Mendelssohn originally composed a short linking movement in which a solo flute evokes Luther the musician (he is known to have played the flute) leading directly into the statement of the chorale “Ein feste Burg.” This plan was later dropped. The first strain of the chorale is heard on the flute alone, and the winds and lower strings gradually join in. What follows is a surprise, for the chorale is treated in jaunty fashion as if it were to be a set of variations. But the tune is never completed, and the full orchestra interrupts it with the start of the finale proper, a vigorously positive statement to support the triumph of the Reformation.
Fragments of the chorale are admitted into the texture and eventually the chorale appears in a strong statement from the winds. Its final strain provides a close from which all elements of doubt and conflict have been banished.