Symphony No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 52

By R. Larry Todd, Duke University

Written for the concert Jews and the European Musical Tradition, performed on Jan 26, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang Symphony stands as the composer’s most ambitious symphonic achievement, one that figured during his lifetime as one of his most popular compositions. But curiously enough, as we now approach the 1997 sesquicentenary of Mendelssohn’s death, the Symphony remains among the least well-known of his orchestral works. Its tangled reception history, which to a large extent mirrors the remarkable rise and fall of Mendelssohn’s critical fortunes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, invites a rehearing of the work, and a new look at the complex web of musical and historical issues Mendelssohn addressed in creating what he described as a “symphony-cantata after words of the Holy Bible.”

The impetus for the work was a commission for a Leipzig festival that celebrated in June 1840 the quadricentenary of the invention of moveable type (among the other performances was the premiere of Albert Lortzing’s comic opera Hans Sachs). A year or two before, Mendelssohn had begun work on a purely instrumental symphony in B-flat major, and he now revisited his symphonic sketches, incorporating bits of earlier material into what would emerge as a seamless three-movement sinfonia joined to a cantata-like series of nine vocal movements requiring the use of chorus and soloists. The texts, chosen principally from the Bible, concern the praise of God and mankind’s progress from darkness to enlightenment (through the dissemination of God’s word, its implied agent being the Gutenberg Bible).

By introducing the element of text into the domain of the symphony, Mendelssohn was no doubt responding to the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, who, in the finale of that work, had created in 1824 an imposing setting, with soloists and chorus, of Schiller’s ode, “An die Freude.” The Lobgesang may be grouped profitably with other texted, nineteenth-century symphonic experiments such as Berlioz’s Harold en Italie (1834) and Romeo et Juliette (1839) and Liszt’s Faust Symphony (1857), usually viewed as attempts to assimilate and reinterpret the significance of Beethoven’s monumental masterpiece.

Unfortunately, the obvious similarities between the Lobgesang and the Ninth Symphony provided a ready supply of ammunition for Mendelssohn’s detractors. In 1849, Richard Wagner, for whom the Ninth remained an inimitable monument, commented in a thinly veiled allusion: “But why shouldn’t this or that composer also be able to write a symphony with choruses? Why shouldn’t “the Lord God” be praised at the end, at the top of one’s voice, after He has assisted in bringing to life as cleverly as possible the three previous instrumental movements?” (Artwork of the Future). And in the twentieth century, the distinguished English musicologist Gerald Abraham dismissed Mendelssohn’s symphony as the most dismal attempt to follow the lead of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony ever conceived by human mediocrity” (A Hundred Years of Music).

But Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang in fact offers considerably more than a shallow imitation of the Ninth Symphony. In celebrating Gutenberg’s invention, it also celebrates the German Reformation, the aims of which were considerably advanced by the advent of printing and the spread of literacy. By extension, too, it celebrates German church music, and especially the sacred music of J. S. Bach and the oratorios of Handel. For Mendelssohn, Schumann, and their contemporaries, Bach in particular represented the fons et origo of a distinguished German tradition (hence Mendelssohn’s emphasis on the cantata, and the prominent use of chorales and fugal writing, all quintessential elements of Bach’s art). And finally, in the Lobgesang Mendelssohn sought to break down the divisions between music for the concert hall and the church (appropriately enough, his second symphony was premiered in the Thomaskirche of Leipzig, where Bach had served as Kantor in the eighteenth century).

In titling the work a Symphonie-Cantate, Mendelssohn was, in effect, endeavoring to create his own, new type of generic hybrid, one that encompassed two traditionally distinct genres and secular and sacred styles of writing, and juxtaposed the contemporary with allusions to earlier historical periods. Linking the symphony and cantata together is a prominent trombone invocation. Heard at the very outset, in a kind of call-and-response between the trombones and full orchestra, the figure recurs in the development of the first movement, and in the trio of the second, where it appears in counterpoint to a freely composed wind chorale, a harbinger that the textless symphony will become a texted cantata. Though the trombone figure is absent from the Andante religioso, the third and final instrumental movement, it returns with the revelation of God’s word in the opening chorale movement of the cantata (“All that has breath, praise the Lord”), and it is brought back in the closing bars of the composition, reaffirming the unity of the whole.

The through-composed cantata (Nos. 2-10) presents a highly structured complex that accompanies the textual progression from darkness to light as God’s word is promulgated. To mark the midpoint of the cantata (No. 6), and its turning from ignorance to enlightenment, Mendelssohn chose an especially dissonant vein. In a dramatic recitative the question, “Watchman, is the night past?” is posed three times. The answer, given by a soprano solo, introduces the lifting of the darkness in the radiant chorus that follows (“The night is past”). In No. 8, as an emblem of the German Reformation, Mendelssohn presents a setting of the familiar chorale “Nun danket alle Gott,” first with the chorus a cappella and then with the addition of the orchestra. Nos. 9 and 10, a duet (for soprano and tenor) and culminating fugal chorus, return us to the key of the opening, and the essential idea of hymnic praise. With the final appearance of the trombone figure, we come full circle to the material of the beginning, to the joining of instrumental and vocal celebrations, and of the rich traditions of the German symphony and cantata.