Monday, February 21, 2011

Mendelssohn and Lobgesang

     At present my church choir is rehearsing Felix Mendelssohn's Lobgesang.  You are forgiven for not knowing it as it is not performed very often, but I guarantee you will know another of Felix's compositions - Hark the Herald Angels Sing!  My Mennonite and German Lutheran readers will also identify the chorale that appears in the middle of the Lobgesang, "Nun Danket Alle Gott".    I will post more about the rehearsals as it gets closer to the Good Friday performance but for this post I will tell you a bit about Mendelssohn.
     When rehearsing a major work I like to get into the "head space" of the composer and to that end I have borrowed several books from the library to help me do this and will share some of the stuff I have recently read.
      Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809 in Hamburg, but spent most of his growing up years in Berlin, a city he had a love/hate relationship with.  Loved because his family was there; hated for several reasons one being they did not offer him the state choir director's job, although it has been said if the ladies of the choir could have voted, the job would have been his. 
     That part of the world seemed to be full of great musical minds at that time.   Beethoven, who died in 1827 was still alive when Mendelssohn was growing up and Brahms was born when Mendelssohn was 23 years old.  Robert and Clara Schumann also shared life space with Mendelssohn and had him as a guest in their home.  They were great admirers even naming one of their children Felix.  Felix was also an acquaintance of Goethe and set some of his poems to music.
     Felix was considered a child prodigy much like Wolfgang Mozart had been.  He gave his first concert at age 9 and when he was the ages 12-14 he wrote 12 string symphonies!  Not sure what you were doing when you were 12 but I was probably climbing trees.
     One of the reasons I am a Mendelssohn fan is that he re-introduced Bach to the world.  Bach had fallen out of fashion by Mendelssohn's time but Felix, being the skilled musician he is, was crazy about Bach and conducted the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 which provided Mendelssohn with a catapult into fame as a conductor. Wherever he went Mendelssohn announced the fact that he was a lover of the music of Bach and often included Bach and Handel in his concerts.  He made his living by performing as violinist and a pianist and by composing and conducting.
     Lobgesang  is also known as Symphony No. 2 and is a work that links a cantata to three symphonic movements.  It  had it's premiere on the date of my wedding anniversary, June 25th, although in 1840. (143 years before my wedding.)
     This structure of a combining symphonic movements and cantata is unusual and seems to show how Mendelssohn tried to break down the barriers between secular and church music.  Felix himself chose the texts for this work from the Bible to highlight the triumph of light over darkness; spiritual awareness over ignorance. "The Lobgesang marked Mendelssohn's most ambitious attempt to dissolve the barriers between concert music and functional church music"  (Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn)
It was written for the Gutenberg Festival in Leipzig which celebrates the invention of movable type, largely seen as a light in the darkness of ignorance and was premiered in the Thomaskirche there.
It is no small miracle that Felix was able to complete his Lobgesang in 1840.  Felix wrote the composition at the request of a publisher's festival committee and chose the texts primarily from  the psalms on his own.  During its gestation Felix rarely expressed as much pleasure about one of his compositions.
     " In the middle of working on Lobgesang for the Gutenberg festival, Felix went to Weimar for a week to again rehearse and conduct his Paulus.  The last four weeks before the Gutenberg festival were truly hectic - Felix spent the hours from three in the morning until eleven at night standing at his desk, so he said.  He proofread the parts of Lobgesang as soon as he received them from the copyists.
...The Leipzig pastor Wilhelm Lampadius, who had sung under Felix's direction for the past five years, later described the audience's reception when they first heard Lobgesang.  'I sat next to the venerable Rochlitz and saw how his own and the general pleasure transfixed the dear old man's face...the composition evoked the greatest enthusiasm in the whole audience.
     One sentence in Lobgesang enthralled Felix so much that he mentioned it in several letters:  He wrote,  "One cannot imagine nicer words in the Bible than those that precede Die Nacht ist vergangen, and they fit as if they were written for this music."" (Felix Mendelssohn: out of the depths of his heart by Helen Martens)
Wir riefen in der Finsternis: Hüter, ist die Nacht bald hin?
Der Hüter aber sprach:
Wenn der Morgen schon kommt, so wird es doch Nacht sein;
wenn ihr schon fraget, so werdet ihr doch wiederkommen
und wieder fragen: Hüter, ist die Nacht bald hin? (Isaiah 21)

We called in the darkness,
   “Watchman, what is left of the night?
  The watchman replies,
   “Morning is coming, but also the night.
If you would ask, then ask;
   and come back yet again.”

     That may be one of Maestro Mendelssohn's favourite passages from the Lobgesang but my favourite sentence to be written by Mendelssohns comes from a letter he wrote to his friend in England letting him know he was coming for a visit.  In it he tells his friend to prepare for his stay and to  "incline the blondes to me."  This makes me laugh.   In his youth Mendelssohn loved the ladies and they loved him, but he did eventually marry and by all accounts had a happy marriage to Cecile even though his work took him away from home often and for months at a time.  He enjoyed spending time with his five children.  At the bottom of one of his letters to Cecile he changed to large-printed letters and addressed his five year old son, Carl,   My dear Carl, Thank you for your letter.  Be very good and do exactly what Mama tells you!  Greet Marie and Paul and little Felix, Auf Wiedersehen, mein lieber Sohn, F. M. B
      There is the rather bothersome matter of Jenny Lind, a soprano whom Mendelssohn was clearly enamoured and some say he carried on an affair with her although there is no evidence of that.  It is clear however that they had a deep friendship and after his death Lind would describe him as "the only person who brought fulfilment to my spirit."
     On 28 October, (1847) he was seated at lunch with Cecile when he suddenly started up, speaking with  great excitement in English.  He had suffered a mild stroke, and was taken at once to bed.  On 3 November he suddenly became restless and, at length, uttered a single piercing scream before falling in a stupor.  "  Felix's brother Paul was there and other friends as well.    "At 9:24 the following morning, Mendelssohn died."
     'Mendelssohn had described the afterlife as a place "where it is to be hoped there is still music, but no more sorrow or partings".'  (The Life of Mendelssohn by Peter Mercer-Taylor)  I for one wish that for him and hope it for myself.



  1. Oh wow thanks for your insight on Mendelssohn. They play a lot of his music on the radio station that I listen to, but they always refer to him as Mendelssohn Bartholdy, the name the family adopted when they converted to Christianity.
    Since his anniversary I have been more exposed to his music and life and find it very interesting. So thank you for this, now I am even more curious and must familarize myself with this Lobgesang. Just the name itself makes one want to rejoice. As if that is what music is made for Lobgesang! We sing to give praise to God!
    Do you have a favourite youtube recording of Lobgesang for me to listen to?
    Another great 1st Menno Good Friday musical service that I will miss. So schade!

  2. Thank you Caroline. His name is often printed Mendelssohn Bartholdy in programs here but not always. It seems that even in his own life he did not use it as often as he should. I think his father wanted him to eventually only use Barholdy but it was not to be. Actually I would love to write about his Grandfather Moses Mendelssohn some time. I'm sure you hear a lot about him in Germany. He wrote about the beauties of the Christian and Jewish faiths and why one should not try and convert the other. It reminded me of Opa Vogt's way of thinking.
    I don't have a good YouTube recording as it is not very common. The only thing to find there is the 'Ich Harrte des Herrn" the soprano duet with choir that FMC did on the Germany choir tour. This is one of the movements from the Lobgesang. I listen to it at Naxos website which I access through the public library.

  3. Hi Lori,
    Great post on Mendelssohn. I've never sung the Lobgesang, and now I'm going to mention it to my director.

  4. Hi. Lori, I'm a little late in reading your blog, but I really enjoyed the infor on Mendelssohn - fascinating people, these famous musicians!! Now I'm eagerly awaiting your comments on last evening's rehearsal!

  5. Great Blog !!
    And thanks for the link to Girls Can Cook:)