The Reformation Symphony

January 02, 2017

Mendelssohn; a child prodigy; composer by 19 years of his astonishing Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream; with an Overture  which a college colleague of mine damned at first hearing as ‘Radio 2 music’ – Radio 2 being a middle of the road easy listening radio station in the UK, and playing the more enduring ‘hits’ of a generation back.

I confess also at first hearing I was likewise fooled; thinking this Overture too ‘popular’.  More fool me and my colleague, no?  This Overture is something one with consideration is dumbfounded to understand that a nineteen year old wrote it.  It’s range of colours, tones and tempos; its orchestrations and its very nimble and vivacious melodies and harmonies are enchanting in that very sense which Shakespeare conjures for us with Oberon and Titania; Puck and Bottom; Mustardseed and that Forest of charms and spells.  Mendelssohn’s Overture is nothing short of a marvel; one which as Milton wrote in homage to Shakespeare and by which I wish to praise Mendelssohn; saying:

“thou, our fancy of itself bereaving, Dost make us marble with too much conceiving”

The general anecdotal mythology surrounding Mendelssohn is that he was a composer whose early works shone out like a meteor and thereafter his talent or genius soon subsided or else burnt out; so that his subsequent works are but a shadow of the glory of his former works.   The commonplace appreciation of his works is heavily biased towards a few and usually early works; The Octet, The Violin Concerto, and The Hebrides; but the later Oratorios and his Symphonies are less appreciated, less listened-to on the whole.

Items like Elijah were enormously popular in their time; and rivalled in popularity, as they were Mendelssohn’s homage to, Handel and his Messiah and Samson etc. Only Messiah has survived as a popular religious work for either composer. Handel’s and Mendelssohn’s other religious Oratorios are commonly paid lip-service but yet rarely performed or heard.  This represents a change of taste no doubt; a change which has been affected very much by the happiness of our citizens in Britain and perhaps also in USA, to relegate religious worship and the broadcasting airtime offered to religious works, to a lower league of appreciation and acceptance.

I don’t want to harp on; let’s just state this demise as a fact and move on. Plenty of my stuff elsewhere laments and analyses this demise.

The Symphonies of Mendelssohn are less so religious works; his 5th and final one The Reformation; has a religious title and a thematic thread taken from a hymn tune; but itis without words and so can be borne to be listened to as a secular work as well as a religious one.  The Reformation Symphony being fresh in my mind, having listened again to it lately, is the item I want to use here to argue for Mendelssohn and against the legend that he was depleted, washed-up after a sparkling soaring music debut in his youth.

I might have used Elijah or The Italian or The Scotch Symphony; and there is a considerable number of other fine works of his, otherwise; but what I have to say in redress to his reputation here I feel I can best illustrate by reference to his Reformation Symphony.

For the initiated, the central musical theme of this symphony Mendelssohn borrowed from Martin Luther possibly via JS Bach.  Luther wrote the words and it seems likely also the music, although the words are not used in Mendelssohn’s symphony. It is a Lutheran hymn out of which JS Bach created famously his Reformation Cantata; a hymn entitled: ‘Ein Feste Burg ist Under Gott’ – ‘A Strong Fortress is our God’.

Now hymns, in the sense that they are not imitative of modern light music; but instead are Victorian dirges or rather plodding lessons of the day; are another religious and musical item which has fallen on evil days.  Our present day lightweight skimming-the-surface cultivated superficiality cannot abide the weight, the sometimes perhaps overegged gravity and ‘solempnity’ of these products; and with that bathwater is thrown out great sheaves of beautiful and strong musiks which nonetheless with a discerning few will keep and abide. 'Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott’ is one such tune and hymn.

It is not Victorian; Luther for the sake of you who are learning was a 16th century priest and major figure in what was to become the European Reformation of The Catholic Religion; which movement developed into Protestantism and its offshoots of Chapel and Non-Conformist Puritanicals.  Picture a stout man in early his thirties knocking with a mallet into a church door a nail holding his document containing those ninety-five theses; by which Luther kick-started a revolution in worship which many still consider to have been a refreshment to a more closely pristine way of praise and conduct before God and man in Christendom.  Water under the bridge to many readers no doubt; grandmother taught sucking eggs to many others too; nonetheless game-changing for us and for many hearts yet even now.

For those who unlike myself have music as an accomplishment: here below is the hymn’s music:


Now for me the first rule for appreciating music is listening. Not to catch anything or to anticipate or surmise; to listen undemandingly, allowing the music to be heard. Not loins girded up for a feat of concentration; letting instead the music do the demanding and take a lead.  Second is following strands and threads of music through their surfacing as leading themes still yet to their conveyance below stairs where they supplement a newly arisen risen lead and continue yet their magic ambulations.  Let them flow and be ever in their pursuit not hastily but carefully; staying relaxed.

When the fit is on a listener and this attentiveness comes more fluently than is usual to her/him it is opportunity to study as one listens how the threads and strands interweave and delve and surface, shift, and turn in their refrains.

Thirdly textures. Textures are difficult for me to describe.  They are the interrelations of harmonies so that effects are created which tend to characterise works as being by particular composers and more exactly belonging to a particular piece within an ouvre.  Some textures, many, are so striking and characteristic that they are signatures almost; signatures which carry effects so that when one meets such a signature unknown to oneself; but yet characteristic; the composer’s name is straightaway apparent to one. You might say to yourself;’ Only so-and-so would/could/can do this’.  But textures are more than mere identity tags; they are like grappling hooks on one’s mind and by them is one absorbed, commuted into and amongst the music itself so that the music leads you and feeds you and serves up to you astonishing delights as if never before tasted.

Let’s try and put these ideas into a context of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony.  Mendelssohn has a gift par excellence of producing powerful and strong music but without loss of gentleness and sensitivity. His music’s power and strength is depicted not for its own power and strength’s sake; such as a Beethoven’s temperament might want to express; but always and ever any power and strength Mendelssohn might offer is directed by and refers to the gentleness and the sensitivity of his music; as if it says; ‘this lyric wandering and gentle theme contains and leads naturally into a beauty expressible only by elaborating it into, transmuting it into, those inner fibres it nurses bearing strength and power.’  The strong and powerful statements flow from and seem to be brought out of and nurtured from the very fine and sinuous strands of delicate music by which Mendelssohn entwines themes around one another to make his less blatant and milder effects.

Only by listening to the progress and procedures of the small and slight strands of strings and woodwind wanderings; which seem to amble along airily but which keep such strict musical order, and which characterise much of The Reformation Symphony; is one able to contextualise and so appreciate those areas of it which are more robust and sonorous.  Nowhere more particularly is this so than when one is being carried along on and by the marvellous fugue mostly on the strings and woodwinds which intertwines its way as being the final movement. In it a living marvel which is in continuance today, concerning how it was possible for Mendelssohn to fabricate and fashion a final movement so intimately integrated within itself; and which carries that character said by drama critics to attend some playscript stories in performance; that here is an inevitability; and even so there continues allurement and expectation of surprise working at the same time for a listener. Magic.

Mozart may be more buoyant with quantities of sheer joie de vivre; Beethoven more impressive on the mind with his sturm and drang; Mendelssohn however matches maybe surpasses them in passionate and dedicated purposiveness, and always for an other and holy object. I suspect that composing music was for Mendelssohn his offering up of prayer?  It does seem to me that his was a musical gift which sought to complicate but to disavow obscurities.

The word is much overused today; hackneyed and a dead metaphor; the ability of Mendelssohn to create a garment every time which like The Lord Jesus’s was without a seam ('seamless') and woven in one piece; which was to be shared out to themselves by the soldiers at the foot of the cross; just as remain Mendelssohn’s works available to share out today to almost anyone who cares to hear them.

Mendelssohn was a deeply religious man; this is known fact about him. He was a polymath and quite brilliant at many studies and arts.  An intellectual man.  I suspect that his intellectual propensities allowed him to create such intensely, inimately, dense-packed thematic strands of orchestral music. I suspect his religious humility allowed him to transmute such intellectuality, intimacy, and intensity into a fabric of orchestral music which though complex remains accessible, and an open delight.

There are also astonishing textures in The Reformation Symphony; which are similarly all–of-a-piece with the integrity of the work.  There is that ancient chorale tune he uses, which Wagner was to pick up and embellish and use as a great statement in his final work Parsifal.  Understated, almost an aside in Mendelssohn, this use by him of an ancient chorale seems in its place(s) to ask us to halt awhile and to consider, reassess, and consolidate, what we have and where we have come to so far; before the musical change happens which takes us off on another exploration which carries us up again. Nowhere so magnificent as Wagner’s but maybe more contemplative feelingly?  On its two occurrences in The Reformation Symphony the chorale generates astounding musical effects.

There is also that inexpressible amalgam of chords formed of long notes which orchestrate the final restatement of Luther’s theme during the very last few bars of the work.  This is one of those sequences of musical tone amalgams which one wonders how they were ever thought of; and I assume first heard ever when conceived in the mind of the composer? I think I am nearly at a loss for words which might get even a slight attempt at description of the effects here?

Maybe it is Mendelssohn’s own modesty and quietness of character as a person as these pervade his music which are a deterent why he is considered quite widely not to be amongst the very top rank of musicians?  (A BBC Radio 3 poll asking listeners to vote on the top composers ‘of all time’ and which was broadcast either this year or last; a crazy sort of poll which established little other than its own frivolity; gave the palms to the usual suspects, but Mendelssohn was not among them.)

His character and his temperament; his religious nature and his quiet and always –Christlike even – referring his music always otherwise than to himself - seems not the flavour of the age in which we live; where push and shove gets front rank and heeded.  Again the words of Milton come to mind:

“God doth not need Either man's work or his own gifts, who best Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed And post o're Land and Ocean without rest: _  They also serve who only stand and waite.”_

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