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Symphony No. 5 in D major, Op 107 "Reformation"

Related Artists/Companies

Felix Mendelssohn

Upcoming Performances

Image from National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Midori, violin, plays Schumann's Violin Concerto / Symphonies by Mendelssohn & Mozart National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Midori, violin, plays Schumann's Violin Concerto / Symphonies by Mendelssohn & Mozart - Oct. 30 - Nov. 1, 2014
An artist of "great imagination and depth" (Philadelphia Inquirer), Midori plays the first NSO performances of Schumann's Violin Concerto on a program that includes Mendelssohn's "Reformation" Symphony and Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony.

Past Performances

Image unvailable for National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, Conducting/Andre Watts, Piano National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, Conducting/Andre Watts, Piano - Oct. 3 - 5, 2002

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, Conducting/Andre Watts, Piano Oct. 3 - 5, 2002
© Richard Freed
Untitled Document

Mendelssohn completed his “Reformation” Symphony in 1830 and conducted its premiere in Berlin on November 15, 1832. Gaetano Delogu conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work, on March 25, 1969; Anthony Aibel conducted the most recent one, on February 16, 1999.

The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings. Approximate duration, 27 minutes.


Both the number and the opus number of this symphony are misleading in respect to its chronological position among Mendelssohn's works. He was only 38 years old at the time of his death, and a number of his works had not seen publication for one reason or another. The opus numbers on his compositions beyond Op. 72 were affixed by others as the respective scores were published after his death. The “Reformation” Symphony was actually the second of his five mature symphonies for full orchestra, and immediately after it came the “Italian,” but these two were assigned the numbers 5 and 4, respectively, instead of 2 and 3, because Mendelssohn did not finish revising them until much later, and neither saw publication in its final form until after his death. The fourth in order of composition was the Lobgesang, composed in 1840 (with extended choral sections) and eventually published as No. 2; last of all came the “Scottish” Symphony, which Mendelssohn had begun sketching as early as 1829, but completed only in 1842 and published as No. 3. (Between the ages of ten and 14 Mendelssohn composed a dozen symphonies for strings which he never published, but which he never disavowed. During the same period he composed a number of concertos--for piano and strings, for violin and strings, for piano and violin, and for two pianos--which lay forgotten until the middle of the 20 th century. None of these was given an opus number at any time.)

The “Reformation” Symphony, then, is a work of the composer's youth, and not from late in his life, as suggested by the opus number 107. Mendelssohn began work on this score in Wales in September 1829, a few weeks after he made the first sketches for the “Scottish” Symphony during his very productive first visit to Britain. While the “Scottish” was deferred for more than a dozen years, the “Reformation” was completed early in 1830, for it was intended for presentation in June of that year as part of the celebration of the tercentenary of the Augsburg Confession.

The projected festival did not take place, however, and Mendelssohn had no opportunity to have the work performed until 1832, when he was in Paris to perform Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto (one of the several major works by earlier composers that owe their eventual public acceptance to Mendelssohn's enthusiastic support) with François-Antoine Habeneck and the Conservatoire Orchestra. Habeneck also programmed Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, but the orchestra rejected the symphony after a single rehearsal, complaining that the music was “much too learned, with too much fugato, too little melody.” (Even the well beloved Mendelssohn had more than one such experience, though not always with his own music; after he gave the belated premiere of Schubert's big C-major Symphony in Leipzig, members of the orchestras in both London and Paris successfully rebelled against his efforts to introduce it in their cities.) The “Reformation” Symphony was finally heard in Berlin that fall; after the premiere Mendelssohn set the score aside for revision and that, as in the case of the “Italian,” was how this score was left unpublished at the time of his death.

The Augsburg Confession, which the symphony commemorated, was the document drawn up to set forth the principles of Protestantism in June 1530, thus inaugurating the movement known as the Reformation. The first and last movements of this symphony contain symbolic references to that event. The solemn introduction to the first movement concludes with a citation of the “Dresden Amen,” familiar to us from Wagner's use of it in his opera Parsifal a half-century after the premiere of this symphony; the motif returns at the end of the development section. The final movement is based largely on the hymn Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”), traditionally attributed to Martin Luther himself. It cannot be said that Mendelssohn treated either of these themes in a particularly religious or “devotional” manner, but he made quite effective dramatic use of them.

The main theme of the first movement, following that first citation of the “Dresden Amen,” bears a resemblance to the opening of Haydn's final symphony (No. 104, also in D), but the treatment here is uncompromisingly austere. Philip Radcliffe, in his valuable book on Mendelssohn, noted that, despite the tempo marking Allegro con fuoco, much of this movement “seems really to be slow music in disguise.” The hushed return of the “Dresden Amen” between the development and the recapitulation is not us much in the nature of a contrast as in that of a seal of confirmation of the movement's overall character.

Both of the inner movements are quite short, and thoroughly characteristic of their composer. The second movement is an eminently likable scherzo with a particularly felicitous trio. The third is an exquisitely simple “song without words” (though not so titled) which leads, by way of a reminiscence of the opening movement's second subject, directly into the introduction to the finale, an Andante based on Ein feste Burg. This begins with the solo flute's statement of the chorale tune (somewhat different from the version used by Bach), which gradually spreads through the orchestra. New material is introduced in the finale proper ( Allegro maestoso ), but the chorale returns from time to time, in part or in whole, and forms the basis of the jubilant coda.