Friday, December 09, 2005


Mendelssohn: Early Symphonies

Besides many boyish experiments in symphonic composition (some dozen or more) which have been preserved, Mendelssohn wrote five Symphonies. These are usually numbered in order of their publication but I will take them up according to the dates of their compositions.

The first Symphony, in C minor, Op.11, was written in 1824, at which time Mendelssohn was only fifteen years of age. Quite aside from the interest which attaches to it as the symphonic product of so youthful a composer, it discloses qualities of undeniable intrinsic value; it was at once publicly performed, published, and listed as a welcome permanent number on Symphony programs for many years, and in our day it is occasionally encountered. It is not strikingly original: the whole is patterned closely after Mozart, in general style and mode of treatment. But it is not barren of features that foreshadow the maturer Mendelssohn. Perhaps the most independent factor is a passage that occurs in the subordinate Theme of the final Movement: here a twelve-measure phrase group is intonated by the strings, in staccato chords, on uniform beats, tracing an unpretentious melodic thread; this is then exactly repeated, and is unexpectedly joined, with charming effect, by an expressive sustained melody in the clarinet---somewhat after the manner in which Cesar Frank opens the slow Movement of his Symphony in D. This device is used occasionally by Mendelssohn in later works.

Mendelssohn's second Symphony bears the title Reformation. It is in D, was written in 1830, and was published as Op.107---the works of Mendelssohn, published during his lifetime, run through to Op.72 only; all the rest, up to Op.118, were issued after his death, and these embrace many early compositions which he possibly had no intention of making public. Nothing appears to have been farther from his mind than the creation of a "Tone-poem," or of program music, descritptive of events, or any particular event or personality, connected with the momentous upheaval in ecclesiastical history; and therefore the music reflects in a general way, only, the impulses, the ominous atmosphere, the heroic figures involved, and the victorious issue of the revolutionary religious movement. The most obvious connection between the title and the music itself, is the employment of the German chorale Ein' feste Burg (attributed to Martin Luther), in the Finale. Less relevant, though of some weight, are: the warlike motive at the beginning of the first Allegro, and the spirit of agitation which pervades the Movement; also the repeated insertion of the Dresden Amen, at the end of the Introduction (the same phrase that Wagner employs in his Parsifal). For the entire second and third Movements, however, an other, far different, title would be just as appropriate.


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