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Compared with large-scale oratorios such as St Paul, which includes the lyrical chorus How lovely are the messengers, Mendelssohn’s smaller sacred choral works were influenced by Palestrina, ranging from short liturgical motets such as the Sechs Sprüche to the canticle settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. The famous sacred melody ‘O for the wings of a dove’ is to be found in Hear my prayer. The fine choristers of St Albans Cathedral can also be heard ‘on sparkling form’ (Gramophone) in John Rutter’s Gloria (8.572653).
By John Sheppard
MENDELSSOHN, Felix: Choral Music (St Albans Cathedral Choirs, Holder, Winpenny)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809 into a distinguished Jewish family. The grandson of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and the son of a banker, he was recognised as a prodigious pianist at a young age. The family moved to Berlin in 1811, later adopting the name Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and being baptised into the Lutheran Church.
Mendelssohn began composing around 1819 under the tutelage of Carl Friedrich Zelter, director of the Berlin Singakademie. Zelter was a flagbearer for the Bach tradition, then in a time of neglect. He instilled in Mendelssohn rigorous contrapuntal discipline and harmonic flair, based on the study of Baroque and Classical works. Early works, including the String Symphonies, were frequently performed by a private orchestra at the family home to the local intellectual elite, whilst the Octet in E flat (1825) and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826) demonstrate remarkable compositional maturity.
In 1829, with Zelter’s backing, Mendelssohn gave the first Berlin performance of JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The event was influential in the Bach revival in Germany (and subsequently worldwide), helping secure Mendelssohn’s reputation as a fine musician and his first professional position as music director in Düsseldorf (1833–5). He travelled widely throughout Europe and regularly to Britain, his travels in Scotland inspiring the Hebrides Overture and the Scottish Symphony. He gained the friendship of influential figures including Albert, Prince Consort, produced editions of Handel oratorios and Bach organ works, and composed the oratorio Elijah for the Birmingham Music Festival.
Mendelssohn’s last years were spent mainly in Leipzig, where he developed the musical life of the city. As conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra he introduced contemporary music and revived interest in composers such as Schubert. After a short period working in Berlin, he returned to Leipzig, founding the city’s Conservatory of Music in 1843. His last years were marred by ill health, the result of over-work: distressed by the death of his sister Fanny a few months earlier, he died in November 1847.
The significant output of smaller sacred choral works is set against Mendelssohn’s towering achievements—the oratorios St Paul (1836) and Elijah (1846). The influence of Palestrina prevails in the smaller works, inspired by Mendelssohn’s participation in the Berlin Singakademie, and by his experience attending the Holy Week services in the Sistine Chapel in 1831. Few works were composed to commission with a specific liturgical rôle: in a letter of 1835, Mendelssohn declared, ‘True church music, i.e. music that has a place in the Protestant Church service, seems impossible to me—not only because I cannot see where in the service music should have a place, but because I cannot conceive that any such place should exist.’ These works can perhaps best be viewed as contemporary re-imaginations of the artistic and religious ideals of church music of past centuries.
A period of reform in the German Protestant Church was the impetus for much of Mendelssohn’s German sacred music. King Wilhelm IV of Prussia, wishing to establish Berlin as a centre of musical excellence, appointed Mendelssohn Generalmusikdirektor. Accepting the post reluctantly (because the duties were unclear), Mendelssohn nevertheless had oversight of the Cathedral’s music, allowing him to compose works for a liturgy that, prior to its recent revision, had presented few opportunities for music. The Anglican choral tradition in Britain was also experiencing a revival from the 1840s: choruses from works including Elijah, given its first performance in the country, quickly found favour as anthems in services. Mendelssohn’s skill as a composer in adapting to the appropriate religious tradition has ensured longevity for his sacred output.
The Sechs Sprüche date from Mendelssohn’s time in Berlin (1843–6). These six short motets, concluding with an Alleluia, were each intended to follow the reading of the epistle in the reordered Prussian Liturgy of 1843 and represent some of the King’s favourite scriptural verses. Scored for eight-part a cappella choir, they express succinctly and with great sonority the liturgical season for which they were composed: for example, joy at Christmas, penitence at Passiontide and prayerful expectation at Advent.
How lovely are the messengers, a chorus from St Paul which sets a text appropriate for saints’ days, exemplifies an oratorio movement that has become a staple of the Anglican choral repertoire. It was first performed (in German) at the 1836 Lower Rhenish Festival, Düsseldorf; the composer’s friend Karl Klingemann provided a translation for its British première in Liverpool later the same year. The movement, which expresses the words of peace brought by the apostles, demonstrates Mendelssohn’s great gift for melody, here accompanied by lilting figures.
Composed in 1844, Hear my prayer contains perhaps Mendelssohn’s most famous sacred melody—the solo ‘O for the wings of a dove’. The text, by William Bartholomew, is a paraphrase of verses from Psalm 55, and the work could be viewed as a miniature cantata. The chorus accompanies and responds to the enchanting solo line, whilst the psalmist’s evocative images provide in turn contrasting depictions of anxiety, terror and peaceful security.
Mendelssohn’s visit to Rome in December 1830, where he heard the singing of the French nuns at the church of Trinità dei Monti, was the impulse for the composition of Surrexit pastor bonus and Veni Domine, part of the Op 39 group of three motets for women’s choir and organ. Revised for publication in 1838 (substituting Laudate pueri Dominum for an earlier composition), the works range in complexity, character and scoring (from two to four parts), and are complemented by solo lines and sympathetic organ accompaniment.
Dating from July 1844, the Allegro, Chorale and Fugue is representative both of Mendelssohn’s important contribution to organ repertory and his great skill as an organist. At the time of its composition, he had been busy composing various short organ works, some of which (this work aside) he grouped together, publishing them as Sonatas. The tempestuous Allegro, in D minor, precedes the statement of the D major chorale (Mendelssohn’s own) from which the fugue, a clear sign of the composer’s debt to Bach’s works, takes root.
The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis were the result of a request to write settings of the morning and evening canticles for the Anglican Church. The invitation came initially from Vincent Novello in 1832, but Mendelssohn did not begin work on the evening setting until shortly before his death. Published originally in English by Ewer and Co. and subsequently in a German a cappella version by Breitkopf & Härtel, the extended settings of the texts are rare examples of a foreign composer writing for the Anglican liturgy, and show Mendelssohn’s imaginative treatment of the verses. In the Magnificat (the song of Mary), ‘He hath shewed strength’ is rhythmic and strong, for example, whilst the Nunc Dimittis (the song of the aged Simeon) is quiet and lyrical.
Completed in 1830 as part of a set of three motets composed for the Berlin Singakademie, Ave Maria is a setting of the famous text of the Angelic Salutation, and was written with the voice of Eduard Mantius in mind. A favourite tenor of the Berlin public, Mantius was well-known to the Mendelssohn family. The lyrical solo phrases alternate with rich eight-part choral writing and this work, modelled to an extent on renaissance polyphony but equally influenced by Viennese Classical church music, is indicative of the composer’s attempts to re-imagine sacred music, free from liturgical restraints.
Cast in three distinct sections, Richte mich, Gott is another eight-part work from a set of three composed for the choir of Berlin Cathedral. The opening section contrasts strong unison passages in the lower voices with four-part upper voices, the full texture being revealed at ‘Sende dein Licht’ (Send out thy light). The vigorous final section repeats the text ‘Harre auf Gott’ (Put thy trust in God), bringing the work to an affirming conclusion.
© Tom Winpenny 2012
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