Symphony No. 5 in D Op. 107 Reformation (1830)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
- Andante — Allegro con fuoco
- Allegro vivace
- Andante con moto – allegro vivace –
Felix Mendelssohn was the grandson of a philosopher and the son of a well-to-do banker. Although from a Jewish background, at age seven Felix was baptised as a Christian with the surname “Bartholdy” that he never used. Though raised as a Lutheran, he was never fully accepted as one, nor did he totally recant his Judaic heritage. Like Mozart and Saint-Saëns, he became a famous child prodigy, composing numerous symphonies and his octet for strings by his late teens. He had a prodigious memory, being able to play by heart all 9 of Beethoven’s symphonies while still a teenager. At 20, Felix revived Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Berlin, reawakening interest in Bach’s sacred works, and launching his own parallel careers as eminent conductor and successful musical administrator. Over the next few years, Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatory and transformed the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra into the first “modern” professional orchestra., in which a dedicated conductor, rather than the lead violin or harpsichordist, directed the orchestra.
The life and beliefs of Martin Luther impressed Mendelssohn deeply, and he determined to write a work for the June 1830 celebrations of the 300th anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession, a momentous document that espoused the principles of Lutheranism and laid the foundations for Protestantism around the world.
Mendelssohn duly composed the Reformation symphony (the 2nd written, but the 5th to be published at which time it acquired its name) just in time for the celebrations in Berlin, but it was passed over in favour of a more conservative choral work by Eduard Grell. As it turned out, the planned celebrations failed to eventuate due to the political turmoil at the time. The planned premiere in Paris also did not occur, this time due to the musicians rejecting the symphony as “much too learned, too much fugato, too little melody”. This prompted Mendelssohn never again to set foot in Paris. The premiere in Berlin two years later was poorly received and, rejected by Mendelssohn as “a piece of juvenilia”, the symphony was not performed again until it was published 21 years after Mendelssohn’s death.
The symphony’s solemn introduction leads to a stormy main allegro. The dance-like scherzo provides a more cheerful interlude before the brief prayer-like slow movement. The fourth movement opens with solo flute introducing a wind chorale based on Luther’s famous chorale “A mighty fortress is our God”. The strings introduce a new triumphant theme, but the chorale is never far away, until it blazes resplendently, played by the full orchestra to conclude the symphony.