Programme notes for 19th November 2011

Mendelssohn: LaudaSion, Hear My Prayer, Hymn of Praise

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

Mendelssohn’s position in Victorian Britain was unassailable. Friend and confidant of the Royal Family – and a very special favourite of The Queen herself –  he made frequent visits to Britain which were as successful socially as they were productive creatively, both in terms of his professional performances as instrumentalist or conductor and with regard to the compositional output which accrued as a result. A combination of musical snobbery and the decline in popularity of the nineteenth-century oratorio has seen his artistic star on the wane for much of the last quarter of the twentieth century. And yet, the huge resurgence of interest in all kinds of early music – an enthusiasm marked by an almost insatiable desire to re-create precisely the performance practice and conditions of earlier generations – has almost reached the period of Mendelssohn’s creative heights. Already, conductors and recording companies – if not concert promoters – have begun to explore the prodigious inheritance of orchestral, chamber and choral music that Mendelssohn left to us: music much of which is all too rarely heard today.
It is highly doubtful whether the revival of the music of Bach would have been as thorough and ongoing without Mendelssohn’s remarkable advocacy of his music – the organ and keyboard works and, of course, the Matthew Passion. Mendelssohn’s organisation as a teenage student of the brilliantly successful revival of the Matthew Passion in 1829 in the year of the centenary of the work’s first hearing at Leipzig is the stuff of which history is made.
Of all the great composers, Mendelssohn alone can lay claim to being the most youthfully prodigious, with a vast output of immensely enduring classics achieved for posterity by the time he was 25 years old. The works of what the psalmist would refer to as “the days of his youth” were numerous and are world-famous – the overtures A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the work of a mere lad of seventeen) and The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) of three years later, stand out particularly as does the exquisite Octet (written even earlier when its creator was just sixteen years of age). Even the Italian, one of the most popular of all Romantic symphonies, was written when Mendelssohn was only 24. He was also one of the first musical polymaths, famed and fêted equally as keyboard executant, string player, composer, conductor and entrepreneur.
His tragically early death in 1847 was almost certainly brought on by overwork. A friend of Thomas Attwood, Organist of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, Mendelssohn used often to play extempore after cathedral services on his London visits. This practice was evidently to the delight of the cathedral congregation and to the professional frustration of the vergers and organ blowers who, understandably, were keen to return home for their post-Evensong afternoon tea.

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LAUDA SION, Op 73 [1846]
By no means well-known in comparison with the rest of its composer’s sacred output, Lauda Sion is one of Mendelssohn’s finest works and its neglect is incomprehensible. The piece was commissioned for the 600th anniversary of the Feast of Corpus Christi and was first performed in Liège on the feast itself on June 11 1846. The Bishop of Liège had been persuaded by a nun to initiate a special day of thanksgiving for the institution of Holy Communion at the Last Supper and St Thomas Aquinas was engaged by Pope Urban IV to draw up a special liturgy for the new service; included within the Saint’s compilation was the extended hymn known as a Sequence to be sung between the Epistle and Gospel readings for the day. The original plainchant melody survives in popular use, as do settings by polyphonic composers such as Palestrina and Victoria. It is just conceivable that Mendelssohn may himself have been familiar with one or more of such settings, since he is on record as remarking to Schumann that “old Italian music wafted over him like incense”.
What is quite certain is that Mendelssohn was familiar with the traditional plainchant of Lauda Sion and in tonight’s cantata there are a number of significant quotations from that gloriously fluent melody.
The work was written whilst its composer was working at white heat on his Elijah for its premiere at the Birmingham Festival in 1846 and its sunny, Italianate mien is in contrast to its creator’s old testament choral settings, and to St Paul of ten years earlier, in which the influences of Bach and Handel are more clearly felt with the use of chorales as a clear indicator of the inspiration behind Mendelssohn’s mastery of the choral style.
Lauda Sion
unfolds from a radiant movement in C major for the choir. A second chorus, in the tonic minor key, links the old and new covenants [Laudis thema specialis]. The emotional and spiritual heart of the work turns to the “dogma given to Christians” and the ceremony of the Mass celebrated by priests, those “learned in the sacred institutions.” The third number is an exultant hymn in which the lovely melody is thrown back and forth between soprano soloist and full choir in a mood that borders on the ectstatic, towards the very end of which the tenors and basses incant a stanza about the solemnity of a feast in “his memorial was ne’er to cease”. The four soloists are used ingeniously in the central quartet Lo, the new King’s table gracing [In hac mensa novi regis]. The chant motto theme pervades the chorus Docti sacris institutis, lending it an air of historic authority and grandeur. The fabulously expressive aria Caro cibus comes next – an aria well-known in and English version Lord, at all times. Rhetoric and drama are provided for the start of the work’s final movement in which the fanfare-like choral lines appear antiphonally with the full orchestra. A glorious final reprise of an earlier line – vita bonis – leads without break to the final quartet and chorus, beginning with the words Ecce, panis angelorum in which the hushed opening wonderfully captures the mystery of the essence of the Mass and the music provides a cyclic link with the open pages of the piece. The concluding Alla breve for quartet and chorus is a fervent prayer for mercy and the work ends with a hushed Amen. The warmth of the musical expression affirms Jesus as the Good Shepherd tending his flock.
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Like Lauda Sion, Hear my prayer is a work produced when its composer was at the height of his creative powers. Dedicated to Mendelssohn’s friend Wilhelm Taubert, a fellow-composer, the piece was completed on January 25 1844 with the text drawn from the opening verses of the 55th Psalm. Mendelssohn’s concept is that of a cantata-in-miniature. An initial soprano solo with finely-woven accompaniment gives place to a more dramatic section commencing at the works The enemy shouteth, the godless come fast. Ultimately, the music subsides, seemingly all passion spent, and the soloist’s recitative returns to the gently pleading demeanour of the opening of the work, though becoming more passionate at the stanza Lord, hear me call! The celebrated final cavatina, often sung separately as a sacred song, begins with the words O for the wings of a dove with choral involvement in the final coda. The recording of Hear my prayer made in the late 1920s by Ernest Lough with the Choir of London’s Temple Church, accompanied and directed by the legendary George Thalben-Ball, became one of the most celebrated recordings ever made. The English version of the text is by William Bartholomew [1793-1867], the English lyricist, librettist, composer and writer who was, by profession, a chemist. His work on Mendelssohn’s choral output is his living memorial: besides Hear my prayer, he was responsible for the English version of Elijah. Bartholomew was the husband of celebrated composer and organist Ann Mounsey, for fifty years in office at St Vedast’s Foster Lane just behind St Paul’s Cathedral; it was she who accompanied the first English performance of Hear my prayer in 1845.
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SYMPHONY No 2 in B flat, Op 52
The Hymn of Praise is one of two Sinfonia Cantatas devised by their composer in 1839/1840 specifically for the celebrations commemoration the 400th anniversary of the invention of printing. It seems likely, actually, that Mendelssohn had already begun work on a symphony prior to being approached by Leipzig worthy and music publisher Dr Raymond Härtel. The companion work, Festgesang, is famed by virtue of one of its choral movements being lifted for use as the music for Charles Wesley’s famous Christmas hymn Hark! The herald-angels sing.
It is also very likely that the composer was himself responsible for the selection of the texts set in both works. In the case of the Hymn of Praise, the sequence of the scriptural words is particularly masterful. In the original form of Lobgesang – and certainly at the first performance in St Thomas’s Leipzig on 25 June 1840, a tenor aria was utilised in place of the duet comprising the present penultimate movement,  I waited for the Lord was scored originally for two tenors rather than two sopranos, and the famous Watchman scene at the end of the aria The sorrows of death was not in this original version – its addition later was an absolute masterstroke, dramatically speaking and the issuing of the special organ part dates from well after the premiere.
In England, the Hymn of Praise was first heard at the Birmingham Festival on 23 September 1840 in Birmingham Town Hall. Westminster Abbey organist James Turle was at the organ on this occasion. By December of that year, the modifications and adjustments to the original version were complete and the work as we have it today was introduced in 1841 at the Gloucester Three Choirs’ Festival that Summer.
The composer placed a significant quotation from the writings of the great Martin Luther at the head of the score on its title page:
I would gladly see all the arts, especially Music, serving Him who has given them, and made them what they would be.
It is, of course, very clear that the piece was strongly influenced by the prototype of such a work presented to the world by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony – the Choral Symphony. The great difference between the two works is that, in Mendelssohn’s case, it is the vocal and choral portions that are pre-eminent over the orchestral movements.
The work unfolds from a significant motto theme heard at the outset on solo trombone; the incorporation of highly characteristic dotted rhythms is a further prominent feature and the more lyrically reposeful second subject of this initial movement provides a strong contrast. A deftly- scored and lighter textured second movement is a kind of an intermezzo and the finale of the Sinfonia is an expressive Adagio religioso.
The Cantata opens with a heraldic movement All men, all things, the second section of which is the more energised invocation beginning with the words Praise the Lord with lute and harp. The movement moves without break into the ecstatic soprano solo and upper voice chorus Praise thou the Lord, O my spirit which, in its turn, connects with the expressive tenor recitative Sing ye praise, all ye redeemed of the Lord, the aria that follows – He counteth all your sorrows – and the succeeding chorus All ye that cried unto the Lord. This last-named movement leads without break into the famous duet and chorus I waited for the Lord, after which comes the first repose of the choral portion of the piece. The animated tenor solo, The sorrows of death with its hugely evocative Watchman scene concludes with the solo soprano announcing that The night is departing. Then comes the gloriously effulgent first verse of Now thank we all our God scored for much of its duration in six-part harmony; the second verse that follows takes the form of an interlude chorale in the same way as O Thou the true, the only Light in St Paul and, famously, Bach’s chorale from his Cantata 147 – Jesu, joy of man’s desiring.
The tenor, joined by a solo cello, sings the opening segment of My song shall be alway Thy mercy with the soprano joining at the more distracted section beginning with the text I wander in night and foulest darkness. At the reprise of the first motto theme, the melody is given to the soprano to great effect.
The work’s finale is a grandly expansive evocative chorus Ye nations, possessed of a truly memorable final fugue beginning Sing ye the Lord, and ever praise His Holy Name before, at last, the opening fanfare of the work is reprised by the trombone followed by a final triumphant statement by the full orchestral and choral forces.
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