1830: Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 (REFORMATION) in D minor

SUNDAY, November 15, 2020 – 1:22 PM

Symphony No. 5 in D minor, age 21

Instrumentation:

  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, “serpente”  and contrabassoon (fourth movement only, now usually played on the contrabassoon alone)
  • 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones
  • timpani
  • strings

Jan Willem de Vriend

1st movement

During the slow introduction, Mendelssohn cites the “Dresden Amen” on the strings. But what in heaven’s name is that? The answer is HERE, and until this moment I had never heard of it. However, the moment I heard it I knew it from Parsifal and you hear it HERE, as well as countless other places. That theme is always known as the “Grail leitmotiv” from Wagner’s opera “Parsifal”.

2nd movement

The second movement, a Bb major scherzo, is a total contrast to the 1st movement. I like the move to Bb, always a nice touch rather than to D major or to F major, which would be the relative minor to D minor. You can from D major to Bb major with a double morph.

Then a move from Bb to G major is also very nice. It’s not quite a morph, but it could be if you use an aug chord as grease, like Bb to Bbaug to G.

Third movement

This is mostly just strings, at least at the beginning. Then at the end he uses the 2nd theme of the 1st movement to bind together the architecture. It’s a very nice touch. G minor is a good move from D major/minor, though a bit unusual. I like the feel of this music. This whole movement is really short, only about three minutes long, so no longer than a standard intro to the 1st movement of a symphony.

Fourth movement

The fourth movement is based on Martin Luther’s chorale “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A mighty fortress is our God”). The use of the “serpent” or” serpentone”  is an usual touch, since it is an instrument that was in favor for a very short time that you can hear right  HERE. It is unlikely we will hear anyone play the serpent part in this symphony, but that’s only because you can’t find someone with this man’s virtuoso mastery.

Reformation

He wrote it for the 300th anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession. It was a key document of Lutheranism and its presentation to Emperor Charles V in June 1530 was a momentous event of the Protestant Reformation. Mendelssohn’s sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, chose the name “Reformation Symphony”.

It was Mendelssohn’s 2nd symphony

But a whole series of strange coincidences caused it to be misnumbered as No. 5, most of all the fact that it was note it was not published until 1868, 21 years after the composer’s death.

Overshadowed by other symphonies

The “Scottish” and “Italian” symphonies are incredibly popular, so they are far more often played and heard, and the 1st symphony is almost as equally easy to listen and appreciate, so this symphony has never been as popular. However, its popularity continues to increase.

Mendelssohn began work on the Reformation Symphony earlier and  had intended to finish the composition by January 1830. He quite possibly might have finished it before his 21st birthday. He planned to  tour with it for four months before the celebrations began in June.

However, late March the symphony was still not finished. Then Mendelssohn caught the measles from his sister Rebecka.

Too late

With a further delay of the composing and touring, Mendelssohn eventually completed the symphony in May. Unfortunately, it was too late for the Augsburg commission to recognize the symphony for the celebrations.

Eduard Grell

His successful competitor, Eduard Grell, had already established himself as a competent and successful composer who was gaining considerable popularity in Berlin. Grell was extremely conservative in his compositions; his piece for male chorus perhaps matched what the Augsburg celebrations demanded, in contrast to Mendelssohn’s extensive symphony, which may have been thought inappropriate at the time.

Too Protestant?

Mendelssohn resumed his touring immediately after he had completed the Reformation Symphony. In Paris, in 1832, François Antoine Habeneck’s orchestra turned the work down as ‘too learned’; the music historian Larry Todd suggests that perhaps they also felt it to be too Protestant.

Revision and rejection

He did not offer the symphony for performance at London. During the summer of 1832, Mendelssohn returned to Berlin where he revised the symphony. Later that year a performance of the Reformation Symphony finally took place. By 1838 however Mendelssohn regarded the symphony as “a piece of juvenilia”, and he never performed it again.

Another delay of 20 years

It was not performed again until 1868, more than 20 years after the composer’s death.

Controversy over the key

The key of the symphony is stated as D major on the title page of Mendelssohn’s autograph score. However, the composer himself referred to the symphony on at least one occasion as in D minor. The mix-up  is caused by the key of the intro, which is D major before the main part of the 1st movement moves to D major.

 

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