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Program Notes: December 2, 2000

"Hymn of Praise"

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

Felix Mendelssohn

Of the many excellent accomplishments of the German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), perhaps the most cherished is his reintroduction of Johann Sebastian Bach into the concert hall. When the brilliant young Mendelssohn was only 20 years old, the larger masterpieces of Bach had never been heard. It was the St. Matthew's Passion, the manuscript of which came into the hands of Mendelssohn and his friends, that was considered to be unperformable due to its length and difficulty. Mendelssohn, however, changed all that. You might say that Mendelssohn rescued the music of Bach at the eleventh hour. Beyond this, Mendelssohn's influence is still felt in the structure and style of concerts of the symphony orchestra (from his work with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig), and in the teaching and structure of the modern conservatory (from his founding and directorship of the Leipzig Conservatory). And lastly, we would not have the Midsummer Night's Dream, four excellent symphonies for full orchestra, or Songs Without Words, among many other of Mendelssohn's compositions.

In the year of 1840, at the age of 31, Mendelssohn was commisioned to compose a work for a grand celebration commemorating the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg. This celebration included Weber's Jubel Overture and Handel's Dettingen Te Deum. Mendelssohn's contribution was his Symphony No. 2 and called it a symphony-cantata for orchestra and chorus bearing the title "Lobgesang" (Hymn of Praise or Song of Praise).

Not long before this event, we should remember that Beethoven stunned the world with his Symphony No. 9, of which the last movement included vocal soloists and chorus. Some of Mendelssohn's cotemporaries thought his Symphony No. 2 to be a bit pretentious in the shadow the Ninth. However, this should give you some notion of the indominatable spirit of Felix Mendelssohn; he was unperturbed by this and the celebration was a mighty success. German composer Robert Schumann said of the work "The form of the work could not be more happily chosen. The whole stimulated enthusiasm, and certainly the work, particularly at the choral movement, is to be accounted one of his freshest and most charming creations..."

Indeed, the symphony-cantata is a lovely, grand, and charming work. The first three movements are for orchestra alone, playing as a sinfonia prelude to the choral cantata. Movement one, Maestoso con moto - Allegro, opens with a the sober and noble theme by the trombones, very much like a Luther hymn. This theme will link the entire work together (you will hear it plainly in the first and last choruses in the finale movement). From that theme the movement gathers momentum, but is balanced by the second subject, a gently rolling motif. Mostly, the first theme (and it's counter subject) is developed thoroughly toward the movement's end. From first movement, there is no doubt that Mendelssohn has set the stage for the religious feel of the whole work.

The second movement, Allegretto un poco agitato, is a delightful minuet and trio. Though it's comfortable waltz feel is set somewhat against the brass pronouncing again a somber hymnal theme, the second movement feels fresh and charming, though hints slightly of what's to come.

The third movement, Adagio religioso, is built upon a lovely but very serious theme of deeply pious reflection. Although the movement proceeds through a restless pulsing in the strings, it closes in gentle exaltation. The whole of it sings as an instrumental prayer.

The finale brings nine vocal sections that explore a number of variations for vocal combinations. The first theme of the first movement begins this finale. And from here on this beautiful cantata exalts the heavens and our hearts. There is no doubt of the musical reference to the old hymn, "Now thank we all our God" in the Chorale, no. 8, which was a favorite of Mendelssohn's. It was appropriate that Mendelssohn inscribed the work with a quote by Martin Luther, "But I would see all the arts, especially music, in the service of Him who gave and created them."

Text of finale:

I. Three movements of orchestral sinfonia.

II. Chorus: "Alles was odem hat lobe den Herrn!"

All that hath breath praise the Lord!
Hallelujah, praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord with stringed instruments,
extol Him with your song,
and let all flesh praise His Holy name.
All that hath breath praise the Lord.

Soprano: "Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele"

Bless the Lord, Oh my soul, and all that is within me,
bless His Holy name!
Bless the Lord, Oh my soul, and forget not all His benefits.

III. Recitative--Tenor: "Saget es, die ihr erlost seid durch den Herrn"

Tell it forth, ye that are redeemed,
that He freed you from your distress,
from dire affliction, shame, and bondage,
ye who sat in the power of darkness,
all whom He hath redeemed from distress,
tell it forth!
Give thanks to Him and proclaim His goodness!
He counteth our sorrows in the time of need,
He comforteth the bereaved with His regard.

IV. Chorus: "Saget es, die ihr erlost seid den Herrn"

Tell it forth, ye that are redeemed
of the Lord from all affliction.
He counteth our sorrows in the time of need.

V. Sopranos, Chorus: "Ich harrete des Herrn"

I waited on the Lord, and He inclined unto me and heard my cry.
Blessed is the man that maketh the Lord his trust!
Blessed is he that putteth his hope in Him!

VI. Tenor: "Stricke des Todes hatten uns umfangen"

The bonds of death had closed around us,
the sorrows of hell prevented us,
we wandered in darkness,
But He spake: Awake!
Awake, thou that sleepest,
arise from the dead,
I will enlighten thee!
We called through the darkness:
Watchman, will the night soon pass?
But the watchman said: Though the morning cometh,
so also doth the night,
though you enquire, ye shall return and inquire again:
Watchman, will the night soon pass?

Soprano: "Die Nacht ist vergangen"

The night has departed.

VII: Chorus: "Die Nacht ist vergangen"

The night has departed, the day is at hand.
Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
let us gird on the armour of light!

VIII: Choral (Chorus): "Nun danket alle Gott"

Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things hath done,
in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mother's arms hath blessed us on the way
with countless gifts of love and still is ours today.

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given the Son,
and Him who reigns in the highest heaven,
the one eternal God whom earth and heaven adore,
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.

IX: Tenor and Soprano: "Drum sing' ich mit meinem Liede"

This is my hymn I sing
Thy everlasting praise, Oh one true God,
and thank Thee for all the goodness Thou hath done me,
And though I wander in night and deep darkness
and my enemeis surrond me,
yet I call upon the name of the Lord,
and He saves me with His goodness.
This my hymn I sing, Thy everlasting praise, Oh one true God,
and though I wander in night,
yet ever will I call upon Thy name,
Thou only God.

X. Final Chorus: "Ihr Volker! bringet her dem Herrn"

Ye peoples, offer to the Lord glory and might!
Ye kings, offer to the Lord glory and might!
Heaven, offer to the Lord glory and might!
Earth, offer to the Lord glory and might!

Let all give thanks to the Lord!
Thank the Lord and praise His name
and extol His majesty!

All that hath breath praise the Lord!
Hallelujah, praise the Lord!

— Max Derrickson