Mendelssohn and Bach (February 11-12, 2022)

Program


Stéphane Denève, conductor

Jelena Dirks, oboe

Andrew Cuneo, bassoon

Eva Kozma, violin

Bjorn Ranheim, cello



Johann Sebastian Bach

Choral Prelude "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," BWV 720 (trans. 1939)

trans. Leopold Stokowski

played without pause

Choral Prelude "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," BWV 720 (trans. 1935)

trans. Walter Damrosch


Franz Joseph Haydn

Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat major, Hob.I:105 (1792)

Allegro

Andante

Allegro con spirito


Jelena Dirks, oboe

Andrew Cuneo, basoon

Eva Kozma, violin

Bjorn Ranheim, cello


Richard Wagner

Prelude to Act I from Parsifal (1877)


Felix Mendelssohn

Symphony No. 5 in D major, op. 107, "Reformation" (1830)

Andante; Allegro con fuoco

Allegro vivace

Andante—

Andante con moto; Allegro vivace

Allegro maestoso

 

Program Notes

By Yvonne Frindle


 
Johann Sebastian Bach

Choral Prelude: "A Mighty Fortress is Our God"

(trans. Walter Damrosch)

(trans. Leopold Stokowski)

Johann Sebastian Bach

Born March 31, 1685, Eisenach, Germany

Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany


In November 1933, Walter Damrosch conducted a Bach–Wagner program before an audience of 10,000 or so in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The concert began with his own orchestration of J.S. Bach’s chorale-prelude for organ, “A Mighty Fortress.” At his request, the words were printed in the program, though as Martin Luther’s most famous hymn (the so-called “Battle Hymn of the Reformation”), it probably would have been well-known.

Damrosch and his contemporary Leopold Stokowski played an influential role in American musical life, expanding awareness and taste by programming great music—new and old. Damrosch conducted the first American performance of Parsifal and two Gershwin premieres; Stokowski the American premiere of The Rite of Spring. And in the era before the early music movement, they introduced pre-Classical music to millions through colorful symphonic interpretations.

Stokowski was born and died in London but spent most of his life in America where he was conductor of the Cincinnati and Philadelphia orchestras. He’s best known for his appearance in Disney’s Fantasia, which begins with his orchestral version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. This and his 1939 setting of “A Mighty Fortress” were just two of his many tributes to Bach. Like Bach, Stokowski was an organist and his setting of Luther’s hymn uses the instruments of the orchestra as blocks of sound (strings, winds, brass), evoking the effect of organ stops.

Born in what is now Wrocław, Poland, Damrosch emigrated to the United States with his Lutheran parents as a boy. Taking Bach’s chorale-prelude as the starting point, his version of “A Mighty Fortress” creates a rich tapestry of color as the different instrumental voices weave busily around the hymn tune before concluding with a radiant bell-like harmonization. It’s easy to imagine that 10,000-strong audience singing along—“the fine, strong, old melody pealing around the crowded balconies.”

First SLSO performance: November 3, 1963, Eleazar de Carvalho conducting (Damrosch transcription)

Stokowski Instrumentation: 4 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings

Damrosch Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings

Approximate duration: 4 minutes (8 minutes when both preludes are played without pause, as in this performance)

 
Franz Joseph Haydn

Sinfonia Concertante


Franz Joseph Haydn

Born March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria

Died May 31, 1809, Vienna, Austria


The sinfonia concertante is an odd category. Featuring multiple soloists, it resembles the Baroque concerto grosso. Musically, though, it’s very different. As the name suggests, it blends aspects of the symphony and the solo concerto but it also includes elements of the Classical divertimento. The result: symphonic writing, virtuoso display, and an unapologetic spirit of entertainment.


The genre appeared around 1770, enjoyed huge popularity for nearly thirty years, especially in Paris, then fizzled out. Only a handful are programmed today. Its rise aligned with the growing independence of musicians and the emergence of professional orchestras and public concerts as opposed to the private ensembles of the aristocracy. Its decline coincided with the rise of celebrity virtuosos (think Niccolò Paganini).


Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Concertante,” as it was billed in 1792, capitalized on the trend. A former student, Ignaz Pleyel, had imported the genre from Paris to London. And when the violinist-entrepreneur Johann Peter Salomon presented Haydn in a triumphant concert series in the Hanover Square Rooms, he persuaded him to write one of his own. It was an immediate success.


“A new Concertante from HAYDN combined with all the excellencies of music; it was profound, airy, affecting and original, and the performance was in unison with the merit of the composition.” (London Morning Herald)


Then, as now, a sinfonia concertante is an opportunity to spotlight musicians from the orchestra. Haydn takes high and low pairs—violin and cello, oboe and bassoon—and inventively combines them. In the outer movements they’re presented against a rich orchestral background; in the slow movement (Andante) their music is more intimate, played over a discreet accompaniment. The solo cadenzas are fully composed, for practical reasons, but improvisatory in style. In the finale Haydn does something unusual: beginning with a witty playoff between full orchestra and the violin soloist, who interrupts the rousing introduction with recitatives (musical “speech”) in the style of an operatic soprano.


First performance: March 9, 1792, violinist Johann Peter Salomon leading

First SLSO performance: January 23, 1953, Eleazar de Carvalho

Instrumentation: solo oboe, bassoon, violin, and cello; flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Approximate duration: 22 minutes

 
Richard Wagner

Prelude to Act I from Parsifal

Richard Wagner

Born May 22, 1813, Leipzig, Germany

Died February 13, 1883, Venice, Italy


Richard Wagner billed his final opera, Parsifal, as a “sacred festival drama.” The text, which he wrote after reading the medieval epic poem Parzifal, draws on the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail—the chalice from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. The opera is steeped in religious symbolism and Wagner incorporates existing sacred melodies into the music.

The leitmotif or “signature tune” for the Grail is one of these: the “Dresden Amen.” This six-note rising melody was composed in the 1770s for the (Catholic) Royal Chapel in Dresden—where Wagner was court conductor in the 1840s—and during the 19th century it became known throughout Germany in both Catholic and Protestant churches. For Wagner’s listeners it would have evoked the atmosphere of sacred ritual.

The Act I Prelude is impressionistic in effect. The instrumental colors are muted and shimmering, the rhythms often indeterminate, the melodies seem to be perpetually reaching heavenward, and the whole is punctuated by moments of silence. It introduces three key motifs. The Love-Feast motif begins the Prelude. About four minutes in, after a pause, the Grail motif is heard for the first time—in the brass, then the woodwinds—followed by a new idea, the Faith motif.


First performance: July 26, 1882, in Bayreuth, Germany, Hermann Levi conducting

First SLSO performance: January 28, 1910, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: January 22, 2012, David Robertson conducting

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings

Approximate duration: 13 minutes

 
Felix Mendelssohn

Symphony No. 5, "Reformation"

Felix Mendelssohn

Born February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany

Died November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany


“I can no longer tolerate the ‘Reformation’ Symphony, and of all my compositions it is the one I would most like to see burnt. It will never be published.” This is Felix Mendelssohn, writing to his friend Julius Rietz in 1838. It was an abrupt change of heart for a composer who’d spent months writing the symphony—his second—and then two years striving to organize a performance. It’s surprising, even for a composer who was notoriously self-critical. What happened?


There are two likely factors. The first is frustration at what hadn’t happened since the completion of the symphony in 1830. The symphony was not—as Mendelssohn had hoped—programmed for the Berlin celebrations of the 1830 tercentenary of the Augsburg Confession, a major Protestant festival. The organizers had instead opted for choral works in an antique style by Eduard Grell. And it had not been embraced by concert presenters in other cities—not in Leipzig; not in Munich, even though a private play-through on piano was well-received; not in Paris in 1832, where it was rehearsed but rejected as too academic.


Mendelssohn hadn’t even attempted a performance in London even though he was popular there. Perhaps the Paris rehearsal had revealed flaws he wanted to correct. Eventually the “Reformation” symphony was revised and premiered in Berlin in 1832 to mixed reviews. In particular, Ludwig Rellstab criticized it for being modelled too closely on Ludwig van Beethoven’s “late colossal works” and for its “wrong-headed” attempt to express an extra-musical idea (“the Celebration of the Reformation Festival”) in symphonic form.


The “Reformation” Symphony was heard once more in Mendelssohn’s lifetime: conducted by Rietz in Düsseldorf in 1837. Mendelssohn didn’t attend but it’s this performance that appears to have triggered his about-face, leading to the second factor.


Between 1830 and 1837, Mendelssohn’s views on music and its relationship to language shifted. He declined, for example, to give titles to his evocative Songs without Words for piano, claiming that what the music “expresses to me are not thoughts too unclear for words, but rather those too definite.” And he began to question the practice of supplying “programs” or verbal outlines for music, mocking the often fanciful commentaries these inspired.


Mendelssohn had composed the “Reformation” symphony with a concept in mind, even though he didn’t supply a detailed narrative, and in 1832 the symphony had been performed with its title. By 1837 he’d adopted the view that music should be able to convey meaning without a supporting program and he’d evidently asked that no title or explanation be given to the Düsseldorf audience. Rietz reported that the symphony was enthusiastically received but “people were racking their brains trying to figure out what it was supposed to mean.” Mendelssohn’s conclusion: the symphony was a juvenile failure. Our conclusion? This is a symphony where awareness of the composer’s intention really does help in understanding some of Mendelssohn’s musical choices.


The lengthy slow introduction, for example, evokes the weaving vocal lines of Renaissance church music (think Giovanni Palestrina, suggesting the sound world of 1530 and perhaps the Catholic Church—although 19th-century Lutherans also embraced the “Palestrina style” as most appropriate for church music, hence the choice of Grell’s music. Towards the end of this introduction, the first violins enter for the first time, playing the rising “Dresden Amen” theme with its liturgical associations.


The central movements are lighter—a lively scherzo and graceful slow movement—and more tenuous in their connection to the Reformation theme. Even so, Mendelssohn recognized the festive mood and colorful flags of a Corpus Christi procession in the lively second movement with its trilling woodwinds.


The finale introduces the second borrowed quotation: a solo flute intones Martin Luther’s famous hymn, “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”). (The choice of flute is no accident: it was Luther’s own instrument.) This hymn, or chorale, is developed in a hybrid structure— sonata form and variation form—that Rellstab and others would have recognized as a nod to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In expressive terms, it’s as if the symphony rallies around this external musical idea, achieving a state of triumph and celebration.


First performance: November 15, 1832 in Berlin, Germany, the composer conducting

First SLSO performance: December 10, 1948, Charles Munch conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: November 22, 2009, Nicholas McGegan conducting

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate duration: 27 minutes

 

Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.