Three threads connect the works on this afternoon’s concert, the Cantata No. 80 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and the Symphony No. 5 (“Reformation”) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). First, as on many of our concerts (for instance, the water music concert last year), there is an extra-musical connection. Today is, almost to the day, the 500th anniversary of the posting of Martin Luther’s 95 theses. The event is being marked around the world—and in anticipation, Julie Grindle and Jane Ondich, two musicians associated with local congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, approached Symphoria with the idea of programming a concert appropriate to the occasion. The result was this afternoon’s event. Both works being offered commemorate the Reformation—and Mendelssohn’s, in fact, was specifically composed for the three-hundredth anniversary of the Augsburg Confession.
Second, as on some other Symphoria concerts (most obviously the concert centering on the friendship of Brahms and Dvořák a few years back), the choice of works honors the line of influence that links the composers. Although we tend to think of Bach as always famous and beloved, his music actually went into eclipse after his death. He may have been studied by Mozart and admired by Beethoven, but he fell out of favor with the wider public until Mendelssohn’s efforts at revival, in particular his performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829. Bach’s works deeply influenced Mendelssohn’s own—not only his oratorios and his Preludes and Fugues, but other works as well, including the “Reformation” Symphony, written just after that performance of the St. Matthew Passion.
Third (and this is something we’ve never done before), we’ve chosen two works united by their use the same musical theme. “Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”) has long been the most famous of Luther’s chorales; it shows up in four of the eight movements in Bach’s cantata, and it dominates the finale of the Mendelssohn.
You might worry that such a concert would lack variety, but the unifying musical theme is presented in so many different ways that the effect is kaleidoscopic rather than homogeneous.
You might also worry that the concert would be a bit sober, but in fact, there’s plenty of fizz to this commemoration. Let’s begin with the Bach. The work has a complex history, and there’s some debate about what happened when. But it seems to have begun as a Lenten cantata and to have been rewritten at least twice, with various versions stretching from as early as 1715 to as late as 1740 (with additions by Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach after his father’s death). Yet despite its patchwork history, the work is remarkably consistent. And despite its high-minded purpose, it never wanders very far from the dance music that dominates so many of Bach’s other works. Take the fifth movement: the chorus sings the chorale theme in unison, but instead of the clear harmonies and staid four-to-a-bar meter we might expect (and which Bach delivers in the final movement), it’s been transformed into a jolly 6/8, and between each phrase by the chorus, the orchestra dances away contrapuntally in a way that may remind you of some of the most exuberant passages in the Brandenburg Concertos. The first movement, by far the longest, is a lot more complicated. (In fact, hearing it without forewarning, you might not catch Luther’s theme, for while it appears throughout, it is often elaborated and often buried in the music’s texture). That complexity, however, doesn’t dampen the syncopated bounce of the musical interplay. The duet for soprano and bass that follows is perhaps more intently concentrated, but its nearly continuous string of 16th notes gives it a splendid driving energy.
Mendelssohn’s symphony had a rocky history, too. Despite its numbering, it’s actually the second of Mendelssohn’s five symphonies for full orchestra (there are also a dozen for strings alone). What should have been the 1830 premiere was cancelled because of an unstable political situation. The next attempt at a performance, in Paris, was scotched after the first rehearsal because the orchestral members found it too academic—in part because of the touches of Bach-inspired counterpoint. Perhaps as a consequence, Mendelssohn eventually disowned the symphony, and it was only published after his death. Since then, it’s become one of Mendelssohn’s most beloved works. In fact, it’s one of the very few works that Symphoria has programmed twice in its five-year history.
In retrospect, the reaction of the earliest performers seems incomprehensible, since the work is anything but stuffy. Yes, Mendelssohn does start the symphony with an apparent quotation of the opening theme from the finale of the Jupiter Symphony, the most contrapuntally intricate work Mozart ever wrote; but Mozart’s contrapuntal whirlwind is hardly abstract, and in any case, Mendelssohn uses the theme to launch a movement that’s extremely dramatic, even stormy. The second movement has all the effervescence of the familiar Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: and the brief third, almost entirely for strings (with a few woodwind interjections) has the spirit of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words. Then, as the last note of the third movement is held in the cellos and basses, comes one of Mendelssohn’s most magical transitions. After a solo flute begins the theme of Luther’s chorale, other winds enter one by one to fill out the harmony; the ensemble swells further as the music progresses, with the full orchestra eventually joining in. This serves to introduce a brilliant movement where the chorale is treated to all sorts of imaginative workouts; and it ends with a brassy restatement that brings the symphony to a brilliant and joyful conclusion. Listening to the Mendelssohn Fifth today, without the shadow of its early failure, it’s hard to understand why the composer rejected it, but at least we can rejoice that he didn’t destroy it.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org