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ClassicsOnline Home » MENDELSSOHN, Felix: Symphony No. 2, "Lobgesang" (Chalker, Rivera, Cole, Seattle Symphony Chorale and Orchestra, Schwarz)
Mendelssohn wrote his Second Symphony or Lobgesang (‘Hymn of Praise’) in 1840, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. This symphony-cantata, as the composer termed it, is duly permeated with a rich and often jubilant spirit, and patterned after Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in its solo vocal and large choral forces. The rich orchestral palette is supplemented by thrilling and expressive vocal writing, which includes solos and duets of great beauty, and culminates in a blazing fugal ending.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Symphony No 2 in B flat major, Op 52, ‘Lobgesang’ (Hymn of Praise)
Born in Hamburg in 1809, eldest son of the banker Abraham Mendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn, who took the additional name Bartholdy on his baptism as a Christian, Heine’s ticket of admission to European culture, was brought up in Berlin, where his family settled in 1812. Here he enjoyed the wide cultural opportunities that his family offered, through their own interests and connections.
Mendelssohn’s early gifts, manifested in a number of directions, included marked musical precocity, both as a player and as a composer, at a remarkably early age. These exceptional abilities received every encouragement from his family and their friends, although Abraham Mendelssohn entertained early doubts about the desirability of his son taking the profession of musician. These reservations were in part put to rest by the advice of Cherubini in Paris and by the increasing signs of the boy’s musical abilities and interests.
Mendelssohn’s early manhood brought the opportunity to travel, as far south as Naples and as far north as The Hebrides, with Italy and Scotland both providing the inspiration for later symphonies. His career involved him in the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf and a period as city director of music, followed, in 1835, by appointment as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Here he was able to continue the work he had started in Berlin six years earlier, when he had conducted in Berlin a revival of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Leipzig was to provide a degree of satisfaction that he could not find in Berlin, where he returned at the invitation of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1841. In Leipzig once more, in 1843, he established a new Conservatory, spending his final years there, until his death at the age of 38 on 4th November 1847, six months after the death of his gifted and beloved sister Fanny.
Mendelssohn wrote his second symphony, ‘Lobgesang’ (Hymn of Praise), in 1840 as part of the musical celebration of the quartercentenary of Gutenberg’s invention of printing with movable type. For the same occasion he wrote his Festgesang, the source of the English Christmas hymn Hark, the herald angels sing, originally a song in praise of Gutenberg. Mendelssohn had in fact already completed three symphonies but discounted the fifth, the Reformation Symphony, which he saw as a failure, and the Italian Symphony, which he intended to revise. The Scottish Symphony was eventually completed in 1842. Lobgesang enjoyed immediate popularity at its first performance in Leipzig in June 1840, followed by a performance in Birmingham and, by command of the King of Saxony, a further performance in Leipzig in November, for which Mendelssohn made some revisions, notably in the addition of three further vocal movements, the tenor recitative of the third movement, the sixth movement tenor solo and the ninth movement duet for soprano and tenor. It seems that the opening Sinfonia may originally have been conceived as part of an instrumental symphony and there was the suggestion that in adding vocal elements to the rest of the work Mendelssohn was imitating Beethoven. That, at least, was the hostile judgement of Wagner, who, as the self-appointed heir to Beethoven, saw in the work a feeble copy, a mere symphony with choruses: Why should not the Lord God be resoundingly praised at the end, after He has helped to conduct the three preliminary instrumental movements to the most superficial of possible conclusions, he wrote. Wagner, of course, had his own jealous reasons.
The symphony-cantata, as Mendelssohn described it, uses texts from the Luther Bible and on the score he quoted the words of Luther, Sondern ich wöllt alle künste, sonderlich die Musica, gern sehen im dienst des der sie geben und geschaffen hat (I would happily see all the arts, especially Music, in the service of Him who has given and created them). The work opens with a celebratory introduction, starting with a trombone motif that is to return, derived, it has been suggested, from plainchant. The introduction leads to a sonata-allegro movement, with a leaping first subject, followed by a secondary theme introduced by woodwind and divided violas, a theme that hints at Beethoven. The unifying motif, already heard in the exposition, has a part to play in the central development, together with other elements of the earlier thematic material. A diminuendo brings the return of the second subject, followed by the recapitulation. A clarinet, with a reminiscence of the opening motif, links the first movement to the second, a lilting G minor replacement of a scherzo, its opening melody doubled at the octave by the first violin and the cello, followed by oboe and bassoon. There is a G major chorale-like central section, before the return of the original key in a final section that is a greatly modified recapitulation. The D major Adagio religioso, with its suggestions of the opening motif, forms an appropriate link to the vocal movements that follow.
The motif returns in triumph to introduce the chorus Alles, was Odem hat (Let everything that has breath), leading to the soprano solo Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele (Praise the Lord, O my soul). The French horns provide a link to the tenor recitative Saget es (Proclaim it) and the G minor aria Er zählet unsere Tränen (He counts our tears). The G minor chorus Saget es, die ihr erlöset seid (Proclaim it, you who are delivered through the Lord) is finely written, with its predominantly triplet string accompaniment. This is followed by the well-known E flat major duet for two sopranos with chorus, Ich harrete des Herrn (I waited for the Lord). The so-called watchman scene, in a dramatic C minor, Stricke des Todes hatten uns umfangen (The bonds of death had held us) provides a moving episode of some intensity, with the watchman’s question „Ist die Nachte bald hin?“ (Will the night soon pass?) finally answered positively by a solo soprano, words that link the movement to the following D major chorus, Die Nacht ist vergangen (The night is gone), a contrapuntal triumph, celebrating also the enlightenment that Gutenberg might be seen to have brought. Suggestions of Bach are pursued in the G major chorale Nun danket alle Gott (Now thank we all our God), its second verse more elaborately accompanied. The original key of B flat major returns for the duet for tenor and soprano, Drum sing ich mit meinem Liede (Therefore I sing with my song). The basses introduce the final chorus with Ihr Völker! bringet her dem Herrn (You nations, bring to the Lord), returning from G minor to an inevitably contrapuntal conclusion to the words Danket dem Herrn und rühmt seinen Namen und preiset seine Herrlichkeit (Give thanks to the Lord and extol his name and praise his glory), providing a splendid ending, capped by the unifying motif and words of the first chorus.
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MENDELSSOHN, Felix: Symphony No. 2, "Lobgesang" (C...