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

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Midori, violin, plays Schumann's Violin Concerto / Symphonies by Mendelssohn & Mozart Oct. 30 - Nov. 1, 2014
© Peter Laki

In the year 1830, the Lutheran Church was marking the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, a fundamental document of the Protestant faith.  Felix Mendelssohn decided to participate in the celebration by writing a grand symphony incorporating Martin Luther's chorale Ein' feste Burg ("A Mighty Fortress").  He was apparently eager to follow in the footsteps of J. S. Bach, whose St. Matthew Passion he had revived at the Berlin Singakademie in 1829:  Bach had written his cantata Ein' feste Burg (Cantata No. 80) exactly 100 years earlier for the bicentennial of the Lutheran Church. 

      Mendelssohn started work on the symphony while in England in the autumn of 1829, and finished it in Berlin the following spring.  As his friend Eduard Devrient related, Mendelssohn made an effort to work out every detail of the instrumentation (at least in the first movement) in his head before committing a single note to paper. 

Felix undertook to write down the entire score, the whole of the instrumentation, bar by bar.  It is true that he never wrote out a composition until it was quite completed in his head, and he had played it over to those nearest to him; but nevertheless this was a gigantic effort of memory, to fit in each detail, each doubling of parts, each solo effect barwise, like an immense mosaic.  It was wonderful to watch the black column slowly advance upon the blank music paper. 

      If writing the symphony was a great effort, naming it was not easy either.  In a letter to his sister Fanny, Mendelssohn asked her advice on a suitable title:

Try to collect opinions as to the title I ought to select:  Reformation Symphony, Confession Symphony, Symphony for a Church Festival, Juvenile Symphony, or whatever you like.  Write to me about it, and instead of all the stupid suggestions, send me one clever one; but I also want to hear the nonsensical ones sure to be produced on the occasion. 

      In the wake of the revolutionary events of the year 1830, the church festivities were cancelled.  Mendelssohn's symphony was again scheduled for performance by Antoine Habeneck in Paris in 1832, while Mendelssohn was in town.  This time it was the musicians who protested against the work, which had too much dense counterpoint to their taste.  Mendelssohn led a single performance in Berlin later that year, but then withdrew the work and did not allow it to be performed or published during his lifetime.  What is more, he left instructions for the manuscript to be burned.  The symphony was not published until 21 years after the composer's death, which explains why it is numbered last among Mendelssohn's symphonies. 
      The symphony contains an unusually large number of allusions to earlier works.  The four-note opening motif of the Andante introduction, played by the violas, is known to most of us from the last movement of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, but it has a long history going back all the way to Gregorian chant.  Mendelssohn elaborates the motif contrapuntally, setting the stage for the next quote, the so-called "Dresden Amen"-a harmonization of the word "Amen" as sung in churches in Dresden since the 18th century.  (Fifty years later, Wagner would use the Dresden Amen as the Grail motif in Parsifal.) 

      The Dresden Amen is followed by the main part of the movement, in a stormy D minor that recalls the "storm and stress" tone of many minor-mode works by Haydn and Mozart.  (The first four notes are identical to the beginning of Haydn's Symphony No. 104; the same opening was also to be adopted by Schumann in his Second Symphony of 1845-46).                     

      According to classical expectations, the second theme introduces a more peaceful, lyrical mood; however, it does so only gradually here, as it begins in the minor mode and modulates to major only in the third measure.  At the end of the tempestuous development section, the Dresden Amen reappears, ushering in a rather unusual recapitulation.  The tempo is slower here than it was at the beginning, and the forte dynamics are replaced by piano, with the strings often playing pizzicato (with the strings plucked).  Mendelssohn may have been inspired here by the third movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, where a similar "toning down" occurs.  Eventually, however, the music finds its way back to its initial exuberance. 

      The second movement is a light-hearted and simple minuet in B-flat major, with a G-major trio remarkable for its ingratiating melody and innovative orchestration.  The minuet is repeated with the addition of a substantial coda. 

      The short third-movement Andante (G minor) is an aria whose theme is presented by the first violins.  Commentators have cited Pamina's G-minor aria from Mozart's Magic Flute and the Arioso dolente from Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 110 as possible influences.  The spirit of the latter is certainly present when the violins suddenly interrupt their melody with a recitative-like cadence.  

      The last movement opens with a flute solo in G major, intoning the chorale Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott ("A Mighty Fortress Is Our God").  More and more instruments join in, and the chorale is treated in a Bach-like contrapuntal style.  The home key of D major is reached at the end of an excited Allegro vivace section, followed by an Allegro maestoso tempo.  The chorale theme returns, and becomes the basis of an extended fugato.  Later we hear a more lyrical variation in which parts of the melody are taken up by the cellos and bassons with accompaniment in short staccato notes from violins, violas, and double basses.  After the chorale is joined by a new, folk-like dance melody, the jubilant movement ends with a solemn proclamation of "A Mighty Fortress."