MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 2, 'Hymn of Praise'
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Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)
Symphony No.2, Op. 52, "Hymn ofPraise"
Born in Hamburg in 1809, eldest son of the banker AbrahamMendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, FelixMendelssohn, who took the additional name Bartholdy on his baptism as aChristian - Heine's ticket of admission to European culture - was brought up inBerlin, where his family settled in 1812. Here he enjoyed the wide culturalopportunities that his family offered, through their own interests andconnections. Mendelssohn's early gifts, manifested in a number of directions,included marked musical precocity, both as a player and as a composer, at aremarkably early age. These exceptional abilities received every encouragementfrom his family and their friends, although Abraham Mendelssohn entertainedearly doubts about the desirability of his son taking the profession ofmusician. These reservations were in part put to rest by the advice ofCherubini in Paris and by the increasing signs of the boy's musical abilitiesand interests.
Mendelssohn's early manhood brought theopportunity to travel, as far south as Naples and as far north as The Hebrides,with Italy and Scotland both providing the inspiration for later symphonies.
His career involved him in the Lower Rhine Festival in D??sseldorf and a periodas city director of music, followed, in 1835, by appointment as conductor ofthe Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Here he was able to continue the work hehad started in Berlin six years earlier, when he had conducted a revival ofBach's St Matthew Passion. Leipzig was to provide a degree ofsatisfaction that he could not find in Berlin, where he returned at theinvitation of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1841. In Leipzig once more, in 1843,he established a new Conservatory, spending his final years there, until hisdeath at the age of 38 on 4th November 1847, six months after the death of hisgifted and beloved sister Fanny.
Mendelssohn wrote his second symphony, Lobgesang(Hymn of Praise), in 1840 as part of the musical celebration of thequartercentenary of Gutenberg's invention of printing with movable type. Forthe same occasion he wrote his Festgesang, the source of the EnglishChristmas hymn Hark, the herald angels sing, originally a song in praiseof Gutenberg. Mendelssohn had in fact already completed three symphonies butdiscounted the fifth, the Reformation Symphony, which he saw as afailure, and the Italian Symphony, which he intended to revise. The ScottishSymphony was eventually completed in 1842. Lobgesang enjoyedimmediate popularity at its first performance in Leipzig in June 1840, followedby a performance in Birmingham and. by command of the King of Saxony. a furtherperformance in Leipzig in November, for which Mendelssohn made some revisions,notably in the addition of three further vocal movements, the tenor recitativeof the third movement. the sixth movement tenor solo and the ninth movementduet for soprano and tenor. It seems that the opening Sinfonia mayoriginally have been conceived as part of an instrumental symphony and therewas the suggestion that in adding vocal elements to the rest of the workMendelssohn was imitating Beethoven. That, at least, was the hostile judgementof Wagner who, as the self-appointed heir to Beethoven, saw in the work afeeble copy. a mere symphony with choruses: Why should not the Lord God beresoundingly praised at the end, after He has helped to conduct the threepreliminary instrumental movements to the most superficial of possible conclusions,he wrote. Wagner, of course, had his own jealous reasons.
The symphony-cantata, as Mendelssohndescribed it, uses texts from the Luther Bible and on the score he quoted thewords of Luther, Sondern ich wollt alle k??nste, sonderlich die Musica, gernsehen im dienst des der sie geben und geschaffen hat (I would happily seeall the arts, especially Music, in the service of Him who has given and createdthem), The work opens with a celebratory introduction, starting with a trombonemotif that is to return, derived, it has been suggested, from plainchant. Theintroduction leads to a sonata-allegro movement, with a leaping first subject,followed by a secondary theme introduced by woodwind and divided violas, atheme that hints at Beethoven. The unifying motif, already heard in theexposition, has a part to play in the central development, together with otherelements of the earlier thematic material. A diminuendo brings the return ofthe second subject, followed by the recapitulation. A clarinet, with a reminiscenceof the opening motif, links the first movement to the second, a lilting G minorreplacement of a scherzo, its opening melody doubled at the octave by the firstviolin and the cello, followed by oboe and bassoon. There is a G majorchorale-like central section, before the return of the original key in a finalsection that is a greatly modified recapitulation. The D major Adagioreligioso, with its suggestions of the opening motif, forms an appropriatelink to the vocal movements that follow.
The motif returns in triumph to introducethe chorus Alles was Odem hat (Let everything that has breath), leadingto the soprano solo Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele (Praise the Lord, O mysoul). The French horns provide a link to the tenor recitative Saget es andthe G minor aria Er zahlet unsre Tranen (He counts our tears). The G minorchorus Sagt es, die ihr erloset seid (Proclaim it, you who are deliveredthrough the Lord) is finely written, with its predominantly triplet stringaccompaniment. This is followed by the well-known E flat major duet for twosopranos with chorus, Ich harrete des Herrn (I waited for the Lord), Theso-called watchman scene, in a dramatic C minor, Stricke des Todes hattenuns umfangen (The bonds of death had held us) provides a moving episode ofsome intensity, with the watchman's question Ist die Nachte bald hin? (Willthe night soon pass?) finally answered positively by a solo soprano, words thatlink the movement to the following D major chorus, Die nacht ist vergangen (Thenight is gone), a contrapuntal triumph, celebrating also the enlightenment thatGutenberg might be seen to have brought. Suggestions of Bach are pursued in theG major chorale Nun danket alle Gott (Now thank we all our God),its second verse more elaborately accompanied. The original key of B flatmajor returns for the duet for tenor and soprano, D'rum sing' ich mit meinemLiede (Therefore I sing in my songs). The basses introduce the final choruswith Ihr Volker! bringet her dem Herrn (You nations, bring to the Lord),returning from G minor to an inevitably contrapuntal conclusion to thewords Danket dem Herrn und preise seine Herrlichkeit (Give thanks to theLord and praise his glory), providing a splendid ending, capped by the unifyingmotif and words of the first chorus.
The soprano Mary Nelson was born inNorthern Ireland in 1971 and studied in London at the Royal Academy of Music,where she graduated in 1994 with first class honours in performance. Furtherstudy at the London Royal Schools Joint Vocal Faculty brought her thatinstitution's highest award, the Dip. R.A.M. Prizes during her period of studyincluded the Henry Cummings Prize, the Oratorio Prize and the Isobel Jay Prizefor Operatic Arias. She has won other awards from the Countess of MunsterTrust, the Ian Fleming Charitable Trust and the Sybil Tutton Award. Afterappearances in Ireland, Mary Nelson made her English National Opera debut in1998 in