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.

Kol Nidre, Op. 39 (1938)

By Walter Frisch, Columbia University

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

In the summer of 1938 Rabbi Jakob Sonderling of Los Angeles asked Arnold Schoenberg to arrange the traditional melody Kol Nidre for the upcoming Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, the most solemn of Jewish holidays. The commission was timely for Schoenberg, as events in Europe and concern about his family there kept the situation of the Jews constantly in his thoughts.

Schoenberg began the work, which was set for speaker, mixed chorus, and orchestra, on August 1, completed it on September 22, and led the premiere in Los Angeles on October 4. Only a month later came the infamous Kristallnacht in Germany, where synagogues, homes, and businesses were destroyed.

As he started his research on the Kol Nidre text, Schoenberg was shocked to discover what he considered its “immorality” in releasing Jews from the obligations and commitments which had been assumed during the year. In his version the text is somewhat altered to indicate that this act of absolution involves only those sinful vows that run counter to Jewish belief in God.

Schoenberg also rethought the question of the Kol Nidre melody. He observed (as he later wrote to a friend) that “there is no melody as such, but a number of melismas which resemble each other up to a point.” Schoenberg treated these units as independent but related motives, which he then manipulated according to the traditions of instrumental variation and development inherited from Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Although Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre is principally a tonal work, the musical material resembles that of the twelve-tone Fourth Quartet, completed two years earlier, as the scholar Alexander Ringer has pointed out.

Schoenberg explained that in the Kol Nidre he wanted to “vitriolize out the cello-sentimentality of the Bruchs, etc.” He referred here, of course, to Max Bruch’s popular work of 1881. Schoenberg succeeded admirably in his goals: although lasting under fifteen minutes, the Kol Nidre is a modern yet timeless work of stark, compelling power.

Schoenberg prefaced the liturgical text with an orchestral prelude and a narration, delivered by the speaker, who is also the Rabbi. Derived from the oral Jewish tradition of the Kabbalah, the story describes how God, having created light, crushed it to atoms, which are then spread throughout the world and can be perceived only by the faithful. The Kol Nidre text itself is then presented as a dialogue–really a set of parallel invocations–between the speaker and the chorus.

Jews and the European Musical Tradition

By Leon Botstein

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

Tonight’s concert reverses the sequence of history. It opens with Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre, written in 1938 on the eve of the destruction of European Jewry by Nazism. It closes with a throwback to the pre-modern European world before 1848, to an age before virulent nationalism and racial hatred, when notions of the inevitability of tolerance and rationality in the history of humankind still held sway. The concert’s closing work, Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang Symphony, celebrates that faith in the triumph of reason and enlightenment over superstition and prejudice. It communicates the expectation that all sectarian religions ultimately will converge over time into one credo under the banner of a demystified and rational modern Protestantism. For Mendelssohn, the divine is not ineffable but capable of expression in human experience and language as light and reason. At the core of the Lobgesang is a vision of a world at peace, marked by neighborly love and the absence of violence.

Schoenberg was a German-speaking composer, born a Jew in Vienna who converted as a young man and then reconverted in 1933. His return to Judaism was motivated by the radical extremes of hate that soon were to be followed by an unimaginable torrent of physical and psychic violence and cruelty. Schoenberg refashioned a Jewish identity along his own philosophical lines and in his later years espoused an intense Zionism. In the 1920s, in part through a break with the painter Kandinsky, Schoenberg confronted the fact that anti-Semitism in Europe could not be eluded by a religious conversion. Being a Jew meant more than maintaining allegiance to a doctrine and a way of life. He not only returned to membership in the Jewish community, but in his unfinished masterpiece, Moses und Aron, he expressed his conviction that the notions held dear by Felix Mendelssohn were wrong. The divine could not be expressed adequately. Human language was unequal to the task. Humanity, like the Biblical nation that turned to the Golden Calf while waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai, was condemned to doubt–to be seduced by surrogates and to debase reason and truth with inadequate speech and corrupt action.

It is ironic, then, that this concert closes with an expression of unimaginable harmony among humans and a vision of a faith expressed in music and language that seeks to bind humans one to another and not divide them. Mendelssohn did not convert from Judaism as an adult. Yet he grew up as a devout man of faith, although (unlike his grandfather) as a Protestant. He married a pastor’s daughter and produced the most significant church music in Germany of the nineteenth century. Yet, in contrast to his father, Felix never dropped the obvious and emblematic Jewish name Mendelssohn. He never forgot his origins as a Jew or lost his sense of solidarity with the people and religion of his forebears. Like Schoenberg, he knew that being a Jew transcended faith. In fact, Felix Mendelssohn believed that his embrace of Protestantism vindicated Judaism, the ideas of his grandfather, and the logic of history.

Felix Mendelssohn was, after all, the grandson of the eminent philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, contemporary of Immanuel Kant, and the greatest Jewish figure of the German Enlightenment. Born into a family of both material and spiritual wealth, Felix, despite enormous privileges and fame, experienced anti-Semitism, particularly around the so-called Hep Hep riots of 1819. Notwithstanding his forebodings about the rising tide of nationalist sentiment, particularly in the years immediately preceding his death in 1847, Felix still held fast to the hopes eloquently articulated by his grandfather. Moses Mendelssohn had called on his fellow Jews to modernize their religion and seize the opening up of the ghetto in the 1780s and the opportunities created by edicts of toleration to enter into a Christian world as equals. Moses’s son Abraham took the logic of emancipation to its logical extreme. He converted and assumed a new non-Jewish name, Bartholdy. Upon the death of Moses Mendelssohn’s widow, he had his children baptized. Another of Moses’ children, Felix’s aunt Dorothea, married the philosopher Schlegel and embraced Catholicism.

In the third work on the program, placed between Schoenberg and Mendelssohn, we encounter the nearly forgotten music of another German Jew, Berthold Goldschmidt. Unlike the works that surround it, it is a work of “absolute” music, devoid of overt ideology and reflective of the intense identification by German Jews with the traditions of European culture–their contributions to these traditions and their aspirations for them. Goldschmidt was born into the last generation of German Jews who would come of age primarily as Germans and not as Jews. In this concert we hear the voice of the generation of victims, of a distinguished representative of a cadre of artists and intellectuals born at the fin de siècle who descended from German Jewish families who prospered between 1848 and 1933. despite increasing political anti-Semitism, German Jews flourished as assimilated Jews in German society. Goldschmidt was lucky, in a comparative sense. He survived the war in England. But his career as a composer was destroyed, and he was forced to struggle as an outsider, displaced from a world to which he once believed he belonged, prejudice notwithstanding. Unlike some émigrés, he did not lose faith in his values. during the war he fought the mixture of appropriation and disfigurement of culture by the Nazis by broadcasting European concert music on the BBC directed to Europe as a propaganda measure against Nazism.

Today it is ironic that the history of Jews in Germany has become an object of genuine and intense interest on the part of a younger generation of Germans in Western Germany. Books, movies, and plays about the Jews are plentiful. Visual artifacts are carefully preserved. A non-Jewish readership eagerly reads Martin Buber and contemplates the wisdom of the vanished world of Eastern European Jewry, including Hasidism, as mediated not only by contemporary scholars but by the romanticized accounts of Austrian and German Jewish writers of the 1920s–Joseph Roth, Arnold Zweig, and Alfred Doblin. The philo-Semitism of young Germans today is akin to the romance with the Native American in our own country. A society obliterates the living protagonists of a contrasting tradition only to see subsequent generations use the memory of that destroyed tradition as an object of exotic wonderment and a vehicle of social and cultural critique.

A German-speaking culture without Jews! Perhaps only the most virulent of nineteenth-century anti-Semites–possibly Richard Wagner–could have imagined such a possibility. Indeed, the sustained interaction between Jews and Christians in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany led to the fact that German Jewry–despite the context of unremitting anti-Semitism–made remarkable and crucial cultural, intellectual, social, and economic contributions to Germany. Assimilation and acculturation were profound and successful realities. It was as if the paranoia and irrationality of anti-Semitism in Germany only increased as the objects of hate ceased to be openly and visibly Jewish in some preconceived and preferably exotic manner.

Mendelssohn died before it had become clear that neither assimilation nor acculturation could be sustained for the very long term, before the brutal fact emerged that in German-speaking Europe the Jewish Diaspora, despite centuries of cohabitation, ultimately would not find itself secure and at home. The grand sweep of history as retold in textbooks and schools tends to mask the encouraging realities of individual experience and daily life framed by one or two generations of experience. In the end, although, with hindsight, we might think the catastrophe appeared inevitable, the Jews of Germany were shocked by the events of 1933 and 1934. When Hitler turned out not to be a brief nightmare, but was accepted, appeased, and even emulated in the rest of Europe, even after the violence of 1938, few were prepared for the subsequent slaughter. The image of Germany that the Jews of German origin held on to was the Germany of Moses and Felix Mendelssohn; a Germany of Kultur (culture) and Bildung (self-cultivation), of refinement and reason, the “good” Germany of classical Weimar and Goethe.

This concert is dedicated to the memory of the German-speaking Jewish community. Too often when we think of the European Jewry destroyed by Hitler and his allies our mental picture turns exclusively to the poor, pious, shtetl Yiddish-speaking Jew, untouched by Western modernity. But in Germany, and in all of Central and Eastern Europe as well, particularly in Budapest, Vienna, Warsaw, Lodz and Prague, modern European Jews–the Jewish Weitburgers–millions of cosmopolitan Jews–were also obliterated. Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, and Goldschmidt were descended from that line of European Jewry. So were a disproportionately high percentage of the European audience for music and culture before 1933.

We would do well to more than just marvel at the extent, variety and magnitude of the achievement of assimilated and acculturated European Jews. In the face of the power of the music on tonight’s program, we ought to recall and to rekindle a modern Jewish vision of a world of tolerance, freedom, reason, learning, and culture that, despite the Holocaust, survives as a complex set of aspirations for our own day, worthy of respect and emulation.