As Music Director of the famous Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Mendelssohn became well known for his programs. Beginning a set with music from Bach to Beethoven and ending the night with his own compositions; paying homage to the brilliance of the composers before him and in doing so, altering the purpose of the concert evening from that of a simple enjoyment to an educative one.
British conductor Charles Hazlewood describes Mendelssohn’s music as, “pure and technical.” This description fits tonight’s piece perfectly, as we sing Lobgesang or Hymn of Praise. What started in 1830 as a new symphonic idea in B flat, later became a commission for the Leipzig festival commemorating the 400th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing from movable type.
Although the task of writing a symphony after Beethoven was daunting, Mendelssohn created five in his lifetime. Tonight’s work is also known as his second symphony; however the number is according to the date of publication and not the order of composition. In fact, Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise was the penultimate symphony he wrote. It was first performed on June 25, 1840 at St. Thomas Church, where J.S. Bach had served as cantor a century earlier.
The work is divided into three orchestral movements, followed by nine vocal movements, centralized around three themes: the praise of God, God’s faithfulness to those who wait for God’s help and comfort, and the emergence from darkness to light. It is twice as long as his other four symphonies, uses words from the Holy Bible and is set for Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra. Due to the combination of chorus and soloists, it was often criticized for its resemblance to Beethoven’s ninth symphony. As a result, Karl Klingemann called the piece a “symphony-cantata,” and a new genre was born, setting Mendelssohn apart.
Mendelssohn captivated poetry by creating a sonic imagery of it. An example of this can be seen in Hymn of Praise, as one of his themes, the progression of darkness to light, is heard throughout the piece. The first movement begins with a fanfare, played by the trombones, using a rhythmic pattern that resonates as a motif heard in the orchestra and chorus throughout the work.
This colorful and bombastic fanfare played by the brass, in combination with the strings who weave a continuous lyrical drive forward, lead us to the second movement written as a swift waltz.
The third movement, marked cantabile, is also attaca, or attached to the previous movement, which is played from one to the other without a pause in between. As the marking specifies, this section of the piece is played in a singing manner, predominantly by the woodwinds, bringing the audience to a calmer state.
The following movement begins with the fanfare theme and the tension between the brass and strings begins to rise. The high energy leads to the entrance of the choir, triumphantly singing, “All that has life and breath, sing to the Lord.” Soon after, the soprano solo is heard as a call to praise and shows an introspective view of kindness and spirit. The forward movement and excitement continues to build and the entrance of the tenor solo is heard in a recitativo, urging all those who have suffered to give thanks and to feel comfort in God’s goodness. The fusion of chorus, soloists and orchestra emulate the drama and excitement of the Baroque era, while the color and orchestration represent Mendelssohn’s sound of the Romantic Era.
Then, a beautiful and harmonious duet between the two soprano soloists is heard. “I waited for the Lord,” is lyrical and skillfully challenging, while retaining a simplistic nature and pleasing tuneful quality.
The tenor soloist enters introducing the theme of darkness, in a serious and worrisome manner. Then in a recitative, he sings, “Will the night soon pass,” signifying the fear of death, as a soprano soloist enters as a shearing light, assuring him that the night is departing.
The chorus enters majestically proving a pivotal moment in the piece. It is the sonic image to that of a battle between light and darkness. Through its development, tranquility returns and the choir successfully moves towards an angelic choral, singing a melody from the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God,” bringing back Mendelssohn’s theme of God’s faithfulness and comfort.
Thereafter, the tenor and soprano soloists bring back the psychological struggle and uneasiness with darkness. An image that is set by the mysterious color and unsettling rhythmic patterns found in the orchestra. The light motif is brought back in by both soloist and the duet concludes bringing calm once again.
The culmination of this exciting and dramatic work is set by the chorus with great urgency and declamation. The march like theme is brought back and is played together by the chorus and orchestra representing the triumphant win of light over darkness.
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Mendelssohn. “Symphonie NO. 2.” Mendelssohn Symphonie No. 2. Deutsche Grammophon, 1987.
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Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Felix. Lobgesang op. 52, 1840. Stuttgart: Carus, 1990. Print.