05 Feb 2013

Mendelssohn -Symphony No. 5 in D Major, Op. 107 (“Reformation”)

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

Duration: 27 minutes in four movements.

THE COMPOSER – FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) – Mendelssohn spent much of the first three years of the 1830s traveling throughout Germany and Austria while also making extensive trips to Britain, Italy and France. Even at the relatively young age of 20, the established composer had many highly influential literary friends to visit while on the road – Sir Walter Scott, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Franz Grillparzer among them.  

THE MUSIC – Mendelssohn was also mindful of other, non-living writers in 1830. The Augsburg Confession of 1530 was one of the most important documents of the Lutheran Reformation and though not penned by Martin Luther himself, it earned his approval and cleared a path toward the political recognition of German Protestantism. Mendelssohn was mindful of the 300th anniversary of the Confession even before official celebrations were scheduled. Those commemorative events never happened due to the rising political fever across Europe but Mendelssohn, having worked through an illness of his own to complete the symphony in time, was anxious to find another premiere opportunity. After another planned performance in Paris was cancelled almost two years later in 1832, Mendelssohn presented the Berlin premiere himself that fall under the longish title “Symphony to Celebrate the Church Revolution.” Always his own harshest critic, he withdrew it immediately and looked upon it with mild scorn for the rest of his life. The removal from circulation and lack of support from its creator speaks to the “Reformation” Symphony’s obscurity relative to its “Scottish” and “Italian” counterparts. It also explains how the “5th” could be so badly misnumbered. Since it was posthumously published last among Mendelssohn’s five true symphonies, “Reformation” was arbitrarily given the highest number. In truth, publication dates have made a general mess of Mendelssohn’s symphony numbering. The true chronological order was: No. 1, No. 5 “Reformation,” No. 4 “Italian,” No. 2 “Lobegesang” and No. 3 “Scottish.”          

THE WORLD – Ecuador separated from Columbia in 1830 and became recognized as an independent nation. The “Three Glorious Days” of France’s “July Revolution” occurred that summer and Oliver Wendell Homes published his poem “Old Ironsides” in September.

THE CONNECTION – Mendelssohn’s “5th” Symphony was performed most recently on a Utah Symphony Masterworks program back in 2007. Christopher Seaman conducted.