Program Notes

2003 Spring – Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise)

Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) – Felix Mendelssohn, Opus 52

Thirty-one-year old Felix Mendelssohn had plenty of activity already on his plate in 1840, when Leipzig began planning its celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg. Never mind that the date and place of that invention were, and are still, hotly contested; or that Gutenberg was only one of several members of a team, of which the contributions of others may have been seminal; nor that his name was really Gansfleisch, not Gutenberg, and he ended up on the dole. Nothing would do but that Leipzig, which was a center of the book-publishing industry, use the occasion for a huge celebration. Mainz, which usually gets credit as the place of invention, and Strassburg, where Gutenberg lived for a time, were only two of many locales hosting commemorations. In fact, such celebrations were being planned all over Germany, and probably justly so; although the Dutch have also claimed a role, there is historical evidence that Germany became the leading 15th-century exporter of those who knew the new technology. In any event, Felix was given two assignments: First, suitably patriotic music for a Singspiel to be held in the Leipzig market square, at which time a statue of Gutenberg was to be dedicated there; and secondly, a suitable cantata for a concert in the Thomaskirche– the church whose most famous Kapellmeister had been Johann Sebastian Bach, Mendelssohn’s own hero. For the sculpture dedication, Mendelssohn provided a Festgesang, which was performed in June, 1840 by a chorus of 200 men and a large band. This “market music” as the family called it, was not one of Mendelssohn’s better efforts, and is remembered partly because it is the source of a melody– titled, fittingly, “Mendelssohn”– found in almost all Christian hymnals as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”. For the Thomaskirche, however, Mendelssohn decided on a large work, with Scriptural texts, a symphonic prelude, and a choral finale.

Mendelssohn, according to his friend, pianist Ignaz Moscheles, was already at work on a symphony in B-flat. Whether the Lobgesang we know today embodies anything from that earlier work is not certain; Robert Schumann, a Mendelssohn friend and a prominent musical editor, believed that much of the “symphony” , i.e., the three-movement instrumental prelude, was written earlier. If so, it is nonetheless remarkably well-connected thematically with the choral portion. The work was performed on June 25, 1840, and then again in Birmingham, England, on September 23 the same year (probably with English text). There was also a fall performance, probably from the same version, for the King of Saxony– Mendelssohn was currying the royal favor in hopes of a grant to found an Academy of Music in Leipzig. Mendelssohn was not satisfied with these performances, and spent the fall revising the score for a concert in the Leipzig Gewandhaus on December 3, at a benefit concert for the musicians’ pension and relief fund; publication of the choruses was accomplished the same month, although the full score was not in print until mid-1841. These revisions added four numbers to the work, one being the tenor solo and recitative, “The Sorrows of Death”, which is the sixth choral movement.

Lobgesang is also catalogued as Mendelssohn’s “Symphony No. 2″, which is a puzzling moniker for several reasons. First, it suggested– even contemporarily, to Schumann– a relationship with Beethoven’s choral Symphony No. 9. Mendelssohn certainly knew of Beethoven’s masterpiece– it was published in 1826, when Mendelssohn was only 17– but it does not appear that he had any thoughts of imitating that style. Beethoven’s symphony is only about 40% choral; Lobgesang is 61% choral. And, while the orchestral material which precedes the cantata is in three movements, they are coupled without breaks, something Beethoven did not do. Mendelssohn’s five symphonies are not numbered chronologically– if this work is considered a symphony, it was Mendelssohn’s fourth, not counting twelve “string symphonies” completed in his early years. The Mendelssohn family referred to the work as the “printers’ cantata”, and Felix accepted the suggestion of his friend Karl Klingemann that it be called a “Symphony-Cantata”.

Although printing was the excuse for the cantata, there is no reference to that in the text, which Mendelssohn himself supplied, utilizing passages from the Psalms, Isaiah, and two of Paul’s Epistles. The central theme, according to Mendelssohn, was “… a kind of universal thanksgiving on the words of the last Psalm [Psalm 150, vs. 6], ‘Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord’” (letter, in English, to Henry Chorley). As the eighth choral movement, Mendelssohn inserted a chorale, Nun danket alle Gott, familiar to almost all Protestants as the hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God” the words are by Martin Rinkart and date from approximately 1635, while the melody is from Johann Cruger, dated about 1645. This chorale is sometimes called “the German Te Deum”. In this interpolation, Mendelssohn was following a path used by many other composers of sacred works, including J. S. Bach, Schubert, and, a half century later, Stainer. Mendelssohn did, however, slightly alter Cruger’s music and changed the harmonization, and it is his version which now graces hymnals.

Probably the best-known portion of Lobgesang is the soprano duet, “I Waited for the Lord”, with chorus accompaniment, which constitutes the fifth choral movement. This had stunning effect from the very beginning: Schumann, commenting on the first performance at the Thomaskirche, wrote “…it was like a glimpse of a Heaven filled with Raphael Madonnas”. When Lobgesang was performed in Birmingham, the audience spontaneously rose for the final chorus, as it had been accustomed to do for the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s Messiah.

The Naperville Chorus has previously presented Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” (twice, in 1978 and 1998); two of his Psalms, in 1984; and most recently, his oratorio “St. Paul”, in 2000. It is always gratifying to sing his works, in part because they “lay well” for the voice– perhaps because of his boyhood studies in the singing school of Carl Zelter, Mendelssohn seems to understand, better than many other composers, how to provide music which is intuitively singable.

J. R. Fancher, Feb 2003