Lauda Sion, Op. 73 (1846)

By R. Larry Todd, Professor of Music, Duke University

Written for the concert Spiritual Romanticism, performed on June 6, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Grandson of the Jewish Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) was baptized at age seven, and for the remainder of his meteoric life observed the Lutheran faith. A fair amount of his music features familiar Protestant chorales (e.g. the Reformation Symphony, with its citation of Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, and St. Paul, which begins by quoting Wachet auf), and could be read as an avowal of musical Protestantism. Indeed, several of the composer’s instrumental works contain newly fashioned pseudo-chorales, as if he intended to invoke a spiritual element in his music for the concert hall. Yet the composer also produced a significant number of Catholic settings, including Lauda Sion, performed today, as well as works intended for the Anglican Church. There is even a short French hymn for the Huguenot Church (the composer’s wife, Cécile Jeanrenaud, was the daughter of a Huguenot minister); what is more, Mendelssohn was invited to compose some cantata-like psalm settings for the New Israelite Temple of Hamburg, which consecrated a new building in 1844 (nothing appears to have survived of this musical commission). Of overarching significance for Mendelssohn’s sacred music are the two focal points of the oratorios St. Paul and Elijah, the one symbolically commemorating the conversions to Christianity of the composer, his siblings and his parents, the other recalling the rationalist Judaism of Moses Mendelssohn.

Of the composer’s sizable and diverse body of sacred choral music, Lauda Sion, for four soloists, chorus, and orchestra, remains among the least well-known, though by no means the least significant. Commissioned for the six-hundredth anniversary of Corpus Christi, the work dates from 1846, when Mendelssohn was intensely engaged with Elijah, and was premiered on June 11 of that year at the Belgian Church of St. Martin in Liège. There, in the thirteenth century, the Feast had first been observed, after the nun Juliana urged the Bishop to set aside a special day to commemorate the Last Supper. In 1246 Pope Urban IV directed Thomas Aquinas to prepare a liturgy for the new service, subsequently adopted throughout the Church. Among Aquinas’s Latin texts were the twelve stanzas in rhyming couplets of Lauda Sion [Praise Sion], a sequence sung after the Alleluia during the Mass for that day. When the Council of Trent (1545-1563) decided to remove sequences from the liturgy, Lauda Sion was one of only four retained (among the others was the Dies irae, which, centuries later, would inspire composers such as Berlioz, Liszt, Saint-Saëns, and Rachmaninoff). Lauda Sion was sung syllabically (with one note per syllable) to an earlier, twelfth-century monophonic chant. By the time of the Renaissance and Counter Reformation the popularity of the sequence led several composers to write polyphonic motet-like settings, with quotations or paraphrases of the ancient melody. Whether Mendelssohn knew the sixteenth-century settings of Orlando di Lasso or Palestrina is unclear, though Mendelssohn did admit (to Robert Schumann) that old Italian church music wafted over him like incense. Though Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion is freely composed, he clearly had access to a Catholic chant book, for he cited the old melody three times in the central chorus of the composition, Docti sacris institutis [Those learned in the sacred institutions].

The text concerns the mysteries of the Eucharist and the doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that during Communion the Eucharistic elements are converted into the body and blood of Christ. In contrast to much of his Protestant sacred music that celebrates the chromatic austerities and complexities of J. S. Bach’s music, in Lauda Sion Mendelssohn sought to capture a melodious Italianate style. Thus the work begins with a choral movement of praise in a C major radiating euphonious warmth. A second chorus, linking the Eucharist to the Last Supper (Laudis thema specialis), and third movement, for chorus and soprano solo (Sit laus plena) reinforce the reverent tone of the music. The core of the composition (Nos. 4-6) turns to the “dogma given to Christians” (dogma datur christianis), and the ceremony of the Eucharist performed by priests, those “learned in the sacred institutions.” Here Mendelssohn turned to ritualistic counterpoint, for centuries associated with the high style of sacred Catholic polyphony. Thus, in No. 4 the New Covenant is allied with canons for pairings of four solo voices. In No. 5 the chant melody is intoned by the chorus in unison three times (a reference to the Trinity), as the bread and wine are consecrated, and then, in a fourth statement, inverted to the bass voice as Christ’s presence is felt through “different signs, not things” (sub diversis speciebus). The same text figures in for No. 6, a chorale fugue omitted when Lauda Sion was published posthumously in 1848 as Mendelssohn’s Op. 73, but restored in the twentieth century. The seventh movement, a soprano aria, reminds the communicants that the breaking of bread does not divide Christ but “accepts Him whole.” And the dramatic eighth movement begins with a vision of the multitudes taking Communion and awaiting the Final Judgment. The work concludes by invoking the calming music of the opening movement, and painting a vision of Christ as the Good Shepherd, the “bread of angels” (panis angelorum).