The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 52 "Lobgesang"

About the Work

Felix Mendelssohn Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
© Peter Laki

Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809, and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847.  He wrote Lobgesang in 1840 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg's invention of the moveable print; he conducted the first performance on June 25 of the same year, in St. Thomas's Church in Leipzig (where, a hundred years earlier, J. S. Bach had been the Kantor).  The American premiere took place in New York on February 22, 1845, with the Philharmonic Society conducted by George Loder.

            This work runs approximately one hour in performance.  The score calls for three soloists (two sopranos and tenor), mixed chorus, and an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, organ, and strings.

 

There was a time in the 19th century when Lobgesang was one of Mendelssohn's most popular works.  Later, it fell out of favor with critics, performers and audiences alike.  It was often found unwieldy, a cheap imitation of Beethoven's Ninth, or otherwise lacking in originality and interest. 

            Whenever one sees such a drastic change in a work's reception history, one has to keep in mind that the score has always remained what it was in 1840 (even if we can never hope to replicate exactly how it sounded at the time); only we, the listeners, have changed over time.  And upon re-encountering Lobgesang-which is, after all, one of Mendelssohn's most ambitious undertakings-one should try to discard all the historical baggage that has grown up around the work, consider what Mendelssohn wanted to say with his composition, and then decide on our own response to it.

            The circumstances of the work's genesis are well known:  it was written for the 400th anniversary of the invention of moveable print by Johannes Gutenberg, an anniversary marked by an elaborate three-day festival in Leipzig.  (The Gutenbergfest was also celebrated by German communities in the United States, in Philadelphia; Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati and Canton, Ohio.)  Since Gutenberg's major printing project had been the Latin Bible, it was appropriate that Mendelssohn should base his work on verses from Scripture (in Martin Luther's German translation).

            The composer used the festive occasion to create a grandiose synthesis of two of his most important influences:  Bach and Beethoven.  He adopted the format of Beethoven's Ninth, with three symphonic movements followed by a choral finale.  Yet whereas Beethoven's finale consists of an introduction and a set of variations (in other words, a unified movement), the three symphonic movements in Lobgesang are followed by what can best be understood as a cantata à la Bach, made up of no fewer than ten movements, with soloists and chorus alternating.  (It even includes an original Bach chorale, subsequently repeated with added ornamental voices.)  And whereas the Ninth is a dramatic journey from darkness to light, Lobgesang is triumphant all the way through, with a single anguished episode (the so-called ?Watchman" movement, which is frequently singled out as the climactic moment of the work).  In addition to Bach and Beethoven, the two mighty pillars on which the work rests, one hears occasional echoes of Haydn's Creation, a work that had also incorporated Baroque (in that case, Handelian) influences in a more modern context.  In spite of all these debts to predecessors, however, there are plenty of details of melody, harmony, and orchestration that are unique to Mendelssohn and reveal his personal touch.  One example among many would be alternation of a wind chorale and a lyrical string melody in the second instrumental movement, another, the intimately Romantic theme of the duet between the tenor and the soprano.

            To ensure the continuity of the work, Mendelssohn eliminated nearly all pauses between movements.  And at the precise juncture where the structure threatened to fall apart-at the transition from the purely instrumental movements to the first chorus-he created a special link through the repetition of an agitated accompanying motif, first heard in the Adagio and again as the introduction to the cantata.  The entire work is unified by the use of a motto, played by the trombones right at the outset.  This motto, derived from the Gregorian melody of the Magnificat, recurs numerous times.  It is transformed into a fugue theme for chorus, and reappears at the very end as a concluding fanfare.