Program Notes - Mendelssohn Festival

Among all 19th Century composers, there was probably no one who composed as much choral music as Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847); and the breadth of his output was truly amazing: from short a cappella works to giant oratorios filling a whole evening. And, in all of the works, his mastery at composing for “the choral instrument” was unequalled by anyone else in the century. The music seems to sing itself and make a chorus sound beautiful.

Tonight’s program gives a broad sampling of the various genres of his huge choral output: works for a cappella chorus, works for chorus and organ (with soloists), excerpts of a German Lutheran chorale motet, and scenes from some of his great oratorios.

We begin the concert with a cappella works for chorus. Mendelssohn’s Sechs Sprüche (Six Anthems, or, literally, Six Texts) were composed for the Berlin Cathedral Choir. Set for eight voice parts, these short anthems - less than two minutes each - are perfectly constructed: concise with clear architecture. They also possess absolutely beautiful choral sonorities. Am Himmelsfahrtstage (On Ascension Day) begins with a joyous, optimistic melody which has such a typical Mendelssohn sound to it, that many music lovers could identify the composer in just the first two measures. The joy of this brief work is positively contagious. Am Neujahrstage (On New Year’s Day) portrays the serious reflection one might have as a new year begins. This setting of the beginning of Psalm 90 speaks of the timeless immensity - and mercy - of God. Finally, Weinachten (Christmas) is a totally joyous celebration of that happy day. It begins with the women singing the principal theme, all in unison, then immediately fans out into glorious eight-part harmony. The men then get the theme in unison, beneath the women’s harmonies. The work concludes with cascading “Hallelujahs” coming from one part after another.

With Psalm 43 we encounter a bona fide masterpiece - in my opinion, the single finest work he composed for a cappella chorus. This, too, was composed for the Berlin Cathedral Choir and is in eight parts. It begins with a brief dialogue between the men’s voices in unison and the women’s voices in chords. They ask God to “deliver me from the deceitful and the wicked.” They ask, “Why have you put me from you?” Suddenly, all eight parts expand forth in rich harmony: “Send forth thy light!” The dialogue continues as before, recalling the anxious, troubled spirit of the beginning. Then Mendelssohn does a most remarkable thing. When he gets to the words “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?” he goes from D Minor to D Major and gives the women an exceptionally comforting, optimistic unison phrase with the men in gentle harmonies underneath. It’s as if he were interpreting the words to mean “What are you worrying about? God will take care of everything.” This work concludes with sturdy eight-part chords, affirming the trustworthiness of the Lord.

Hear my Prayer was composed in 1844 and first performed the next year in England. This work is much like a miniature cantata with three distinct, contrasting movements and a recitative connecting the last two. The piece begins with the simple pleading of the sopranos, “Hear my prayer, O God.” Mendelssohn’s subtle changes of harmony and melody indicate alternating moments of optimism and loneliness. This suddenly gives way to the middle Allegro movement where the fear and the despair rise to a climax. After a final plea in the recitative (“With horror overwhelmed, Lord hear me call!”), the work arrives at the great final movement, “O for the wings of a dove!” This exceptionally beautiful music evokes a far-away place of peace and rest.

Heilig (Holy) is another eight-part a cappella work. It was part of a set of pieces for a German-language setting of the Mass, this being the Sanctus. It was a relatively obscure work until my dear friend and mentor, the great choral conductor Gregg Smith, came out with a modern edition of it and performed it on tour with his Gregg SmithSingers all across the United States for years and years.

One of the greatest influences in Mendelssohn’s life was the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. After Bach’s death his music was relatively unknown. It was the young Mendelssohn who discovered Bach’s towering St. Matthew Passion and mounted the first performance of the work since Bach’s lifetime. Bach’s influence is very clearly evident in Mendelssohn’s five-movement motet based on the German Lutheran chorale (hymn) Aus tiefer Noth (Out of the depths). We are performing the final two movements. Movement four is quite ingeniously scored for a solo vocal trio (alto, tenor, bass) with the chorale melody in slow notes sung by the entire soprano section of the chorus. It is quite an interesting (and beautiful) movement: the compositional technique is straight from Bach - three independent, contrapuntal vocal parts singing expressive material while the chorale tune spins out slowly on top of it all; but the melodies and harmonies are pure Mendelssohn. The final movement is a straight-forward harmonization of the Aus tiefer Noth hymn tune, solidly concluding the five-movement work exactly in the way the Bach did in many of his motets and cantatas.

Mendelssohn composed three movements for his Geistliche Lied (Sacred Song) for alto solo, chorus and organ. Whereas the first two movements are more contemplative, the final movement which we are performing is unbridled joy. It is a terrifically happy, rousing dialogue between the soloist and the chorus, and a wonderful conclusion to the first half of our concert.

After intermission we turn to three of Mendelssohn’s famous large-scale works, the Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), a symphony-cantata, and his two most famous oratorios, St. Paul and Elijah. In some instances, when I have picked favorite choruses, I also included recitatives and other material leading up to the choruses in order to put them into context. For example (in Lobgesang), I waited for the Lord is a highly popular chorus, often performed in churches. But it is even more interesting when done with the chorus which immediately precedes it. All ye that cried unto the Lord sets the atmosphere of sorrow and yearning which is resolved in the I waited for the Lord. Here Mendelssohn’s wonderfully skillful setting of two soprano soloists intertwined with chorus creates a true classic of the repertory.

Mendelssohn’s first oratorio, St. Paul, shows unmistakably the influence of Bach’s Passions. In our first excerpt of St. Paul we have a recitative sung by a narrator, telling the story, just as Bach’s Evangelists did in the Passions. This particular scene discusses the martyrdom of St. Stephen. At first the tenor soloist is the narrator: “And they stoned him, and he kneeled down and cried aloud.” Now the tenor becomes the dying saint, uttering his final compassionate words, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” When Stephen dies, the chorus sings a German chorale, commenting on the scene, just in the manner that Bach did in both his Passions. This is followed by a Soprano recitative which describes two things: 1) the fact that Paul was responsible for St. Stephen’s sentence (At this point of the oratorio Paul had not yet been converted by God. He was at first known by the name of Saul and was responsible for the persecution of many Christians.) and 2) devout friends of St. Stephen carried his body off for burial. The following chorus comments of his death: Happy and blest are they who have endured. It is one of the most beautiful choruses Mendelssohn ever composed, and it typifies his choral art at its very best. Set on top of a graceful spinning accompaniment, the beautiful choral parts contain a touching melody, arranged and harmonized with consummate skill. The moving climax of the piece occurs, not at the loudest moment, but in the final pianissimo phrases of the chorus (“For though the body dies, the soul shall live forever”), where the hope of the text comes through stronger than ever.

The next scene from St. Paul is about disciples of Christ going out into the world to preach the Gospel. At this point of the oratorio, Paul has been converted, and the Holy Spirit sends him and Barnabas out to preach the good word. The two disciples sing a duet as they go forth. This leads directly to the famous chorus How lovely are the messengers. It begins with a choral duet between two sections of the choir, in keeping with the two particular disciples who have just departed. At the words “To all the nations is gone forth the sound of their words” the music breaks out into four-part harmony.

The final excerpt from St. Paul was chosen just because it is one of my favorite Mendelssohn choruses. See what love is quite special, tender and sweet. It perfectly expresses the gentle love of a Father in Heaven.

The remaining part of our Mendelssohn Festival is the concluding scene from Mendelssohn’s greatest oratorio, Elijah, the work which, incidentally, he considered his masterpiece. Our excerpt begins right after Elijah’s final aria where he goes off to preach the word throughout the world. The brilliant chorus Then did Elijah describes the prophet going forth with extremely dramatic music. “Then did Elijah the prophet break forth like a fire! His words appeared like burning torches!” When the chorus depicts the end of Elijah’s earthly life, the accompaniment drops out and the chorus is heard a cappella, fortissimo in C Major. Suddenly the accompaniment comes back in piano, but in a completely different key, creating an amazing dramatic effect as the words describe his being taken away into heaven by a fiery chariot with fiery horses! And when the chorus sings that he went away in a whirlwind, it is a musical whirlwind indeed! One of the greatest and most famous arias Mendelssohn ever composed follows. Then shall the righteous shine forth radiates a confidence and joy at the ultimate rewards of life in Heaven. The soprano recitative reminds us of the reason Elijah was sent to earth: to turn the hearts of all peoples to their God. The grand chorus which follows (But the Lord from the north) is highly inspiring, and majestically celebrates the greatness of Elijah. A beautiful solo vocal quartet invites all souls that thirst to “come to the waters - come unto Him - and your souls shall live forever!” Mendelssohn concluded his great oratorio with one of the grandest of all his choruses, And then shall your light break forth. After a bold and stirring introduction, it goes straight away into a giant choral fugue of praise. This exciting section builds and builds, and finally culminates in a soaring vocal outpouring of emotion on the word “AMEN!”

Dennis Keene