Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Reformation Symphony

Felix MendelssohnThe 19th Century, Romantic Era composer Felix Mendelssohn, as the reader may know, was known as a staunch Lutheran – much like his protégé Johannes Brahms. Unlike Brahms, however (who was born into a Lutheran family), Mendelssohn was, like the 19th Century church historian Dr. Alfred Edersheim, an adult convert to Christianity from Judaism. Residing and composing in Leipzig – the home of Johann Sebastian Bach (who has been featured on Intrepid Lutherans on many occasions) – he was more than merely an important composer of the Romantic Era who happened to be a Lutheran. He was a key figure in the resurrection of appreciation for the works of Bach, which had been forgotten following the time of Frederick the Great of Prussia, with whom Bach valiantly contended for the sake of Christianity.

Not only this, however, Mendelssohn became an ardent opponent of the extravagant Wagnerian philosophy of "Total Art," which, overtaking Europe for a time and eventually infecting America, required very expensive venues to house simultaneous lengthy performances of Ballet, Symphony and Opera, and was successful enough to cause such a drought in these individual genres as to threaten their existence.

In 1830, Felix Mendelssohn penned his Fifth Symphony, in honor of the 300th anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession. Circumstances prevented its timely completion. It was finally published in 1868, twenty-one years after his death, during the peak of Wagnerian artistic philosophy and the consequent trough of the symphonic form itself. It was entitled, the Reformation Symphony. In a manner typical of the Romantic Era, the music was composed as a tonal representation of the struggle for the Truth of the Gospel throughout the Reformation, beginning with John Wycliffe – the "Morning Star of the Reformation" – and Jan Huss up through the German Reformation led by Dr. Martin Luther. It isn't until the latter third of the symphony that the Lutheran can recognize the triumphant strains of Luther's Reformation hymn, A Mighty Fortress.

More than a tonal representation of the Reformation, Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony was singularly responsible for reviving the symphonic form throughout Europe and America, as well. With it's clearly Lutheran tonal imagery, it was instantly popular among European immigrants in America, most of whom settled in the midwest, and being a relatively short and simple composition, it was within the talent spectrum of the average German or Scandinavian immigrant, many of whom had acquired a superb education in Europe prior to their journey here, many more of whom had at least average if not advanced musical skill. In fact, many local and regional symphonies and music societies were created specifically to play this piece, and survived for many years thereafter, reviving the symphony and the musical arts not only in the midwest and America, but in Europe as well. Indeed, the popularity of Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony in the 19th Century has been credited with felling Wagner's philosophy of "Total Art."

A fitting piece to spend a few minutes with this evening as we remember and celebrate the Reformation, this is a full recording of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 5 in D major/D minor, Reformation Symphony, performed by the New York Philharmonic, and led by Leonard Bernstein.

Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony
NY Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein


Joel Lillo said...

Thank you for your article on Mendelssohn. However, let's not hate on Wagner. Experiencing all 15 hours of his Ring Cycle is one of the most moving experiences in the whole realm of classical music.

--Joel Lillo

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

Your welcome, Joel.

Of course, the "moving" of the person is the purpose of music in the Romantic Era. It was a reaction against the principles of the previous "Neo Classical" or "Classical" Era, which were an expression of the Enlightenment ideals of perfect and mathematically closed order – ideals suggested by observations of Nature. As I'm sure you know, the Enlightenment didn't reject God, it rejected Scripture as God's revelation to man, and instead embraced Nature (or "Natural Law") as God's only revelation. All that could be know about God, all that was necessary to know about God, could be known by a systematic study of Nature, and true worship of God was to discover and exploit the order that was found there.

The Romantic Era realized that Nature did not have very much to say about God that was particularly nice. At every level of nature there was conflict, exploitation and death. Thus, it also came to reject the idea that God was to be found purely in external observation. Rather, all that could be known about God could be probed only by the human spirit, and understood through the individual's experiences. Romantic Era art is about the reality of the messiness, not the order, of Nature, and seeks to move the human spirit to inquiry and introspection.

Wagner embraced these ideals, as nearly all Romantic Era composers did to one extent or another, and for these reasons, Romantic Era art is a lot of fun to experience. However, Wagner was also an adherent of the school of philosophy known as German Idealism, and he was particularly influenced by Hegel and Feuerbach. He was outspoken about this, and makes this apparent not only in most of the stories he created, but in the forms those stories were told. In particular, what he sought to achieve by mashing together ballet, opera, symphony and the visual arts was nothing other than Hegelian synthesis -- a new, superior artform that would leave behind the inferior form of the past (we've written about Hegel in this way on IL, here and here, for instance). Interestingly, when the "thesis" of past forms met the "anti-thesis" of Wagner's artificially introduced conflict of forms, eventually the "synthesis" to emerge -- the "superior truth", as it were -- was simply the continuation of the old forms, along with Wagner's works which merged them all into a single form. Not many were able to immitate him, and not many followed him.

Continued in next comment...

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

...Continued from previous comment.

Regarding the content of the stories themselves, there was a fantastic BBC series on Wagner that aired last Spring. You can listen to it here, and you can read the transcript, here. Worth noting, with reference to The Ring in particular is the philosophy of human freedom he was trying to communicate: "the notion that nothing human is permanent, and all must perish in the spirit's ongoing search for self-knowledge... The essence of this spirit, Hegel argued, is freedom. Wagner took this idea one step further. Freedom, for Wagner, was not only a political phenomenon, it was also a profound spiritual reality, revealed in the moment of sacrifice... Freedom is a social phenomenon, and we acquire freedom by compelling the world to recognize our title to it. It is only in the moment of recognition that I become a full-fledged individual, with a will, a destiny and a self of my own... That idea forms the philosophical core of Marx's critique of capitalist society. It also profoundly influenced The Ring, which tells the story of Siegfried's quest for freedom and individuality, and his final self-betrayal when he enslaves the one he loves and trades her for a substitute... Only at the moment of death does Siegfried regain the path to individuality and freedom.

To redeem Wagner a little bit, like most composers, he settled down in later life, embracing aspect of Christianity and representing them in later works. Here is a decent article on this fact that my wife had read awhile back. Haydn did the same thing in later life – not known as a composer of sacred works, it wasn't until late in life that his Catholicism was represented in works like Die Schöpfung and Die Sieben Worte. Many attribute this change to a desire to „do something good for God“ at the end of his life. And make no mistake – they were good (even as a fan of the Baroque, my favorite version of Die Sieben Worte is definitely Haydn's...).

As for “no hatin' on Wagner”... Well... you just better watch out. I think that's settled doctrine in the WELS. "Treulich geführt" ("Bridal Chorus") ist verboten!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your article on a fascinating piece of music, and an underappreciated composer.

I'd like to know where you sourced your information. Mendelssohn was not an "adult convert;" although he wasn't baptized as an infant, he was baptized in 1816 at age 7 in a private ceremony, along with his brothers and sister. His parents were baptized a few years later.

It is a stretch to say that Mendelssohn was as an "ardent opponent" of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. Mendelssohn died in 1847; the essays written by Wagner formulating the idea of the Total Artwork were written between 1849 and 1851. It is true that Mendelssohn was no fan of Wagner (upon seeing the premiere of "The Flying Dutchman" in 1843 Mendelssohn was "indignant"), but he died too early to lead an anti-Wagner charge of any significance.

I enjoy the Reformation Symphony a great deal, and perhaps it has enjoyed an enthusiastic reception in America and in parts of Europe, but to say that it felled the notion of the Wagnerian Total Artwork surely inflates the importance of this work--a work the composer himself withdrew after its first performance and that still occupies a marginal place in the Western musical canon.

Ironically, the only reason we tend to yolk Mendelssohn and Wagner together is because of Wagner's essay, "Judaism in Music," in which Wagner sought to destroy the reputation of the already dead Mendelssohn and proclaim himself to be the true representative of German music, something Mendelssohn could never be (according to Wagner) because of his Jewish ancestry.

All of this is to say that while I appreciate the essay and find the Reformation Symphony to be a fine work, the historical narrative presented here seems to play a little loose with historical fact. Thank you for all of the insightful and thoughtful articles you post on IL.

--Jeremy Zima

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

Hello, Jeremy, and thank you for your comments.

Most of the information about Mendelssohn, particularly the impact of this piece on Wagnerian artistic philosophy, is taken straight from pre-concert lectures my wife and I took in a few years ago, while attending a Minnesota Orchestra performance of Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. It was also repeated in the program notes, and was featured in radio interviews on MPR prior to the performance. The lecturer at the concert was a professor at one of the local university's (Minnesota University or Hamline, I think). The points that were made about the impact of this symphony were emphatic, and the reason given was that it revived the symphonic form at the local level and from the local level grew over time to the stature it now has.

It may well be that there is a difference of opinion on the matter among academics. That would be nothing new. And there is certainly more to be known that what I heard in those lectures, read in the concert program, and heard on radio interviews prior to the performance. But here in the upper midwest, it is said (and this point was also emphatically made) that many community music organizations that can trace their existence back to the 19th Century trace it to this piece as the reason for forming.

Thanks Again!

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

Er, (correction) that would be "University of Minnesota or Hamline University"...

Joel Lillo said...

Doug, you wrote:

Most of the information about Mendelssohn, particularly the impact of this piece on Wagnerian artistic philosophy, is taken straight from pre-concert lectures my wife and I took in a few years ago, while attending a Minnesota Orchestra performance of Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. It was also repeated in the program notes, and was featured in radio interviews on MPR prior to the performance.

I always find what is said about a partiuclar piece in a program or a pre-performance lecture to be a little suspect. The speaker and author tends to inflate the importance of the piece as a way of justifying its choice for performance. Think of it, the orchestra leader picked the piece for that particular performance. The conductor and orchestra members practiced long and hard to perfect their performance for that evening. They all would like to think that what they are doing that night MATTERS. Hence, the program notes tend to be a little hyperbolic. Doesn't mean that the Reformation Symphony isn't beautiful and (yes) moving. It does mean that it may not be the historic turning point in music that the commentator made it out to be that evening.

--Joel Lillo
PS, Yeah, I discourage "Lohengrin" as a processional in weddings in our congregation. However, that isn't my biggest fight when it comes to wedding music. My biggest fight is telling a couple that their favorite country song does not make a suitable song for a worship service. One couple wanted a song that was basically about a man waking up after a one night stand (they'd never listened to the verses, just liked the chorus). Oh, and don't get me started about "Wind Beneath My Wings." Boy, I'm glad that isn't popular any more!

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

"They all would like to think that what they are doing that night MATTERS"

I'll admit, the tenor of that performance was very definitely a "Midwest Identity" theme... but I am still reluctant to entirely toss out the lectures and notes -- any more than I would toss out the lecture of any professor of any school or any essay written by any scholar, that is. They ALL have an agenda, and make a living out of sharing certain information while withholding certain other information (for a variety of reasons, of course). One has to take it all with a grain of salt. Either way, most of the bio stuff I include in these kinds of posts is designed to generate interest in the topic and in the people involved, and to encourage people to investigate more on their own -- I think that, at least, has been accomplished here.

As for "Treulich geführt" -- that and many other Wedding classics were verboten at my wedding, which, although it was a Lutheran service, wasn't even W/ELS or LCMS... Prior to our wedding, my wife was a professional wedding attendant. She never liked the Bridal Chorus, but grew to loath it as a professional attendant, along with Pachelbel's Cannon and Gigue -- and the modern "I Love You" love songs just made her wretch. Our service was a traditional worship service, but the processional and recessional were from the classical repetoire. Since everyone has heard all the wedding music that comes from German sources (she's German), and since I'm Norwegian, we decided on a seldom-heard piece by Edvard Grieg -- Norwegian Bridal March (Op. 19). Recessional was one of Brahm's Slavonic Dances (very celebratory).

Mr. Joseph Jewell said...

Wonderful! This has long been one of my favorite symphonies, and as a timpanist the fourth movement is quite a lot of fun to play.

One of my good friends is a talented musical arranger and arranged pieces of the final movement for trumpet and organ, which my wife and I used as our wedding recessional.

Mr. Joseph Jewell said...

Here's a link to the recessional arrangement, if anyone's curious:

(Just a midi, but it sounds pretty good--I don't have the live version on my computer here.) I very much enjoyed the sped up fanfare and the bit with the octaves at the end. Bonus points for identifying the tune hidden in the "Amen"...

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