On Mendelssohn's "Reformation" Symphony

Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony is one of three by this composer with a nickname, and there are plenty of others by his predecessors and successors.  While this isn't an exhaustive list, here, for instance, are other nicknames for symphonies by well-known figures: “Linz,” “Prague,” “Scottish,” “Italian,” “Hymn of Praise,” "London," "Oxford," "Rhenish."  These names get at the fundamental function of the symphony in late-18th and early-19th century European society; works thought of as public statements, they are about large cities, or about nationalities, or about religion.  Even if their titles do not originate with the composer (in some case they do; but in some cases they were appended by the publisher in order to generate sales in an every-man-for-himself musical economy), they nevertheless offer key insights into these works’ reception histories, which is just as valuable as what the composers thought about them.  People understood symphonies to be about their lives and about their worlds.  And while, of course, this world is completely unrecapturable to an audience living half the globe away, almost 200 years later, we may nevertheless benefit from a mode of listening that views such works as large-scale, general statements about human social interaction, rather than as merely a set of reified notes and rhythms, as something called “classical music,” only to be viewed on a pedestal from afar and worshipped without interaction.

The “Reformation” Symphony was conceived of for the June 1830 tercentenary of the Augsburg Confession.  Mentioning this piece of information is surely the very worst of program-note writing; it seems like a totally removed, distant, rarified historical event of a completely bygone epoch.  Who cares? we might ask, and what is the Augsburg Confession anyway?  Answering those questions in order: it's important for us as a key moment in the identity of what would become modern-day Germany (the conversation surrounding the unification of which has far-reaching, eventually tragic consequences in the 20th century, and of course through to our own day).  Not only was the anniversary a celebration of the Augsburg Confession (a document written by committee that contains the key tenets of the Lutheran faith) itself; it was an attempt by King Wilhelm Friedrich III of Prussia to unify Calvinists and Lutherans into a single Protestant liturgy, thereby strengthening its political influence against the Catholic church.  In short, you should care because this work is part and parcel of a culture whose development has direct, if chronologically removed, bearing on our own.  While the symphony was not performed during the celebrations for accidental reasons related to Mendelssohn’s schedule and health (he had the measles and stopped working for a month and a half), its meaning is deeply bound up in the most important socio-politico-religious issues of the day and reflects on them in myriad and complex ways.  Thus, while we are not capable of fully grasping its context as an emotional reality, we can allow the multifaceted nature of its generation and intended meaning to guide our listening.

The first movement, a slow introduction and a sonata form, is based, with remarkable parsimony, almost entirely on the so-called “Dresden Amen,” a musical fragment of arresting beauty first played pianissimo by the strings after a series of bold, chant-like calls in the brass.  A few thoughts about the Dresden Amen: musically, it is a series of notes that ascend, stepwise, by a fifth, outlining the dominant chord of the key; containing, thus, both close and wide intervals, it can be deployed by the composer for multiple purposes; he can use its parts to construct many different themes.  Extra-musically, strikingly, its popularity was such that it was used in both Protestant and Catholic churches during the 18th and 19th century.  I will avoid speculating on its further meaning; but I encourage you to do so.  Finally, we’re destined to hear the Dresden Amen differently than Mendelssohn did; it’s used in later music as well, most notably Wagner’s Parsifal and the Finale of Mahler’s 1st symphony.  It's hard to know what to do with that information.  To my ear, the Dresden Amen’s appearance in the works of an anti-semitic composer, Wagner (both Mendelssohn and Mahler were Jewish by blood), and in that of one of the last figures (Mahler) to cling to the Romantic style that Mendelssohn helped create, gives its use a poignancy that the "Reformation" symphony’s composer could not have anticipated.  As triumphant as the work is, we know that history had a more complex fate in store for such ostensibly straightforward celebrations.

The fast portion of the first movement is grim and determined, almost Beethovenian in its minor-key insistence.  Its first theme is a severe and chiseled, based on the 5th from the Dresden Amen; its second theme is based on the same interval, now adorned with a subjectivized passion.  The development section charts a direct course to a crisis and out-pouring.  An interruption (shocking because subdued) of the Dresden Amen causes a recapitulation that calmly and chastely reconsiders the exposition.  The coda, though, returns to a stormy battle mode, ending with an plagal cadence (of the sort found in the “amen” of present day hymns) of utmost determination.

The brief Scherzo, placed second rather than third, is a stark contrast to the first movement’s seriousness.  Light and carefree, its trio (middle section) involves two oboes playing a long, pastoral-sounding theme that is also a bit carol-like in nature.  A repeat of the opening section becomes passionate then evaporates in a way that is so quintessentially Mendelssohnian that one looks in vain for some undetected irony.

The even shorter slow movement is, again, very different from what has preceded it.  If the Scherzo was faith at its easiest, this arioso is the opposite.  Hopeless, languishing, indecisive, the first violins sing a heartfelt song of deep and conflicting emotions.  The movement’s close is benedictory in nature, comforting only in the coldest sense, dying away to a major triad cause by a Picardy third that feels more official than honest, more required by ceremony than consolatory.

This paves the way for an assertive flute soloist to enter with a direct quotation of the universally known chorale by Martin Luther (a flute player himself) “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (know in English as “A Mighty Fortress is our God”), as if to suggest that not only faith, but the power of music as an expression thereof, is a savior from the despair of the previous movement.  

The Finale of the “Reformation” Symphony is formally ambitious and unique in the symphonic repertoire.  After two introductory sections, both elaborations of the chorale tune, a sonata form is launched by a mighty orchestral unison.  It is striking because it includes a new main theme (a skyrocketing ascending arpeggio), and a second theme (a further transformation, now triumphant, of the Dresden Amen), but also because Luther’s chorale fluidly and unpredictably appears and disappears, weaving itself in and out of the texture.  The subdued development section, for instance -- surprising after such a celebratory exposition -- concerns itself only with cello and woodwind fragments of “Ein feste Burg” rather than any of the movement’s thematic materials proper.  A coda that begins with a surprising and sublime calm gradually hurtles towards a full-throated, almost too insistent chorus of the entire orchestra declaiming the hymn at first in unison, then in a traditional harmonization.  It is a striking claim -- rather than music as an agent of transcendence, here it seeks to affirm and unify the social order with the religious in way that only a composer like Mendelssohn, born and raised a member of the only recently emerged bourgeoisie, whose family were Lutheran converts from Judaism, was in a unique position to have imagined.