The Victoria Symphony performs on the traditional lands of the Lekwungen peoples and acknowledges with respect the Songhees, Esquimalt and WSÁNEĆ peoples whose historical relationships with the land continues to this day. We extend our appreciation for the opportunity to live, create, and perform on this territory.
Watch & Listen
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, Reformation
Thursday, October 14, 8:00 pm
Mendelssohn, From Paulus, Overture
Mendelssohn, Symphony No.5 in D major (Reformation)
Music Director, Christian Kluxen
Associate Conductor, Giuseppe Pietraroia
Terence Tam, Concertmaster
Tori Gould, Principal 2nd Violin
Kenji Fuse, Principal
Brian Yoon, Principal
Mary Rannie, Principal
Stephanie Bell, Principal
Michael Byrne, Principal
Keith MacLeod, Principal
Jennifer Gunter, Principal
Alana Despins, Principal
Ryan Cole, Principal
Brad Howland, Principal
William Linwood, Principal
Christopher Reiche Boucher
Executive/Audio Producer: Theresa Leonard
Video Production: Roll.Focus.
Audio Engineer: James Perrella
Assistant Audio Engineer: Paul Luchkow
Filmed on location at Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria, BC - July 16, 2021
Written by Ronald Comber
Overture, from Paulus, Op. 36
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Although Felix Mendelssohn has long been revered for his orchestral works, his fame in the nineteenth century was secured as well by his two completed Oratorios, Paulus and Elijah.
Deeply felt and created with almost perfect craftsmanship, both Oratorios made an immediate impression from their first performances, and they were soon played by ensembles both religious and secular throughout Western civilization. And they still are!
Mendelssohn began to work on the libretto for Paulus with his friend, the pastor Julius Schubring in 1832, beginning composition two years later. The work was completed in early 1836, and the Premiere was at the Lower Rhenish Music Festival in Düsseldorf on May 22nd to instant acclaim. A further performance in English in Liverpool the same year was, if anything, an even greater success.
The Overture to Paulus is a perfect demonstration of Mendelssohn’s art. The Oratorio is deeply serious, dealing with the Pauline conversion, so the music must have both gravity and a sense of drama. The work opens with the low strings intoning the chorale Wachet Auf, (Sleepers, awake), a theme that subtly informs the whole Overture, from the romantic treatment of the developing theme, through the central fugato section to the closing transformative conclusion.
Mendelssohn, Symphony No.5 in D major (Reformation), Op. 107
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Upon first hearing, the Reformation Symphony always comes as a shock to listeners familiar with the glittering perfection of Mendelssohn’s most famous works; the Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Italian Symphony. Can this dark, thickly orchestrated music really be Mendelssohn? Yes it can, and it is a very important work, too.
The Reformation Symphony is one of the very few major compositions by Mendelssohn that is not the result of many polishings, many revisions. Remember, the Italian Symphony -a fairly early work – was not released for publication in Mendelssohn’s lifetime. He preferred to keep tinkering at it, searching for the ultimate expression. He said himself that he had a “hellish respect for print”. Sometimes, of course, this perfectionism worked against him. He occasionally polished all the musical inspiration out of a work, or less frequently, he would decide that a composition was on the wrong track altogether, and suppress it. The Reformation Symphony is, for a variety of reasons, one of the latter.
Mendelssohn composed the piece in 1830 to commemorate the three hundredth anniversary of the Augsburg Confession – a pivotal date for Lutherans. We do not know whether he was asked to compose an incidental work for the occasion, or whether he decided privately that the Reformation would make an ideal topic for a symphony. Mendelssohn obviously felt strongly about the subject, at any rate. The Symphony is a harmonically austere statement of religious and social convictions, quite devoid of Mendelssohn’s normal lyricism.
Mendelssohn loathed the Symphony as soon as he had heard it in rehearsal. He already felt that it would need much work, but the actuality outstripped his most pessimistic dreams. The orchestra behaved very badly about it, and eventually refused to perform the work in concert. It was a Paris orchestra, so he probably needn’t have taken their attitude too seriously. They hated everything new as a matter of course. In the autograph score from which Mendelssohn was trying to conduct his rehearsals, we can see his comments pencilled in. He called the first movement “a fat bristly animal” and wrote over its climax, “a complete misfit”. In a letter to his sister, Fanny, he wrote that he would rather burn it than any other of his pieces. To the great good fortune of posterity, he never did quite get around to burning the Symphony. As is so often the case, the work stands solidly on its own merits, without conforming to Mendelssohn’s standards of composition. It is, and has to be, a somewhat flawed work. There are points of roughness in the first movement, and the last movement is not entirely felicitous, but considering the lack of any sort of editing, it is all very impressive.
The first movement, marked Andante – Allegro con fuoco, had an interesting genesis. Where most music was composed theme by theme to form a horizontal line from which the harmony could be derived, Mendelssohn merely wrote out the complete score of the first movement, vertically bar by bar – a tour de force of memory and technique. Later, he was a little ashamed of the feat, when the occasional roughness mentioned earlier became apparent. The first movement is in two thematically interrelated parts; the first, a fugato introduction, ends with a church formula, the “Dresden Amen”, later to be used as the “Grail” motif in Wagner’s Parsifal. The second part, the Allegro con fuoco, is filled with a sombre beauty.
The second movement, an Allegro vivace, has all of the trappings of a standard Mendelssohn Scherzo, but what an emotional change is wrought here! Gone are the whimsy and the playfulness of the other Symphonic Scherzos. This movement has a chilling suavity all its own.
The third movement, Andante, leads directly into the Finale. Written for strings alone; it is designed to heighten the contrast with what is to follow. A variant of the “Dresden Amen” appears, as well as a singularly beautiful instrumental recitative.
The fourth movement opens with a single voice. An unaccompanied flute intones “Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott”, the first verse of which is immediately developed into a fugato. After the exposition and treatment of a second theme, the Development returns to a second verse of the Chorale tune, again culminating in a fugato. Lower brass are used to produce a Cantus Firmus, over which the counterpoint seethes and bubbles. Mendelssohn surprisingly moves into a secular coda at this point, to bring the work to a spectacular conclusion.