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8.550957 - MENDELSSOHN: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 5
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 - 1847)
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op. 11
Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809, son of the banker Abraham Mendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, the model for Lessing's Nathan the Wise, the epitome of tolerance in a generally intolerant world. In 1812 the family moved to Berlin after the French occupation of Hamburg and it was there that Mendelssohn received his education, in music as a pupil of Carl Zelter, for whom the boy seemed a second Mozart. As a child he was charming and precocious, profiting from the wide cultural interests of his parents and relations, excelling as a pianist and busy with composition after composition. In 1816 he was baptized a Christian, a step that his father took six years later, accepting what Heine described as a ticket of admission into European culture, although it was one not always regarded as valid by prejudiced contemporaries.
Abraham Mendelssohn sought the best advice when it came to his son's choice of career. Cherubini, director of the Paris Conservatoire, was consulted, and, while complimenting Abraham Mendelssohn on his wealth, agreed that his son should become a professional musician, advice given during the course of a visit to Paris in 1825, when Mendelssohn met many of the most distinguished composers and performers of the day. In Berlin his career took shape, with prolific composition and activity as a pianist and as a conductor. His education was to include a period of travel throughout Europe, a Grand Tour that took him as far north as Scotland and as far south as Naples, his journeys serving as sources of inspiration.
In 1835 Mendelssohn was appointed conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. There were, at the same time, other commitments to be fulfilled in a short career of intense activity .In Leipzig he established a series of historical concerts, continuing the revival of earlier music on which he had embarked under Zelter with the Berlin performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 1829. At the same time he gave every encouragement to contemporary composers, even to those for whom he felt little sympathy. At the insistence of the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV he accepted an official position in Berlin, but this failed to give him the satisfaction he had found in Leipzig, where he established the Conservatory in 1843 and where he spent his final years until his death at the age of 38 on 4th November 1847, six months after the death of his beloved sister Fanny.
Mendelssohn wrote his Symphony No.1 in C minor in March 1824, at the age of fifteen, a year or so before writing his famous Octet. This was not his first attempt at the form, since he had already written a dozen symphonies scored only for strings. The C minor Symphony, however, at first labelled by its precocious composer as No.13, was the first for full orchestra, scored for double woodwind, horns, trumpets and timpani and now strings with an undivided viola part. It was first performed in Leipzig on 1st February 1827 and two years later, conducted by the composer, in London, when he replaced the Menuetto with aversion of the Scherzo of the Octet, a practice that some have continued. The first movement is classical in form, following Mozart and therefore Schubert, the latter twelve years his senior, his music unknown to Mendelssohn at this time. There is a dramatic opening and first subject in the first movement, an important linking passage for the woodwind and a lyrical second subject. The first two elements are important in the central development, followed in due course by the recapitulation and an extended coda. Trumpets and drums are silent in the E flat major Andante, its opening string theme answered by descending clarinet thirds. The Menuetto, in 6/4, is in forthright contrast to its A flat major Trio, which it frames, and there is a fast-moving finale, its first theme strong in outline and contrast, with a secondary theme entrusted to the clarinet, accompanied by plucked strings. The symphony ends in a triumphant C major.
The Reformation Symphony was undertaken five years later, with the idea of contributing to the 300th anniversary of the Confession of Augsburg that in 1530 established Lutheran Protestantism. It was not performed in 1830, however, and was first heard in Berlin on 15th November 1832, when it was described as Symphonie zur Feier der Kirchen-Revolution (Symphony in Celebration of a Church Revolution). Its contrapuntal textures raised opposition in Paris, where Habeneck was prevented by his musicians from conducting a performance. The score was only published after Mendelssohn's death and the instrumentation includes three trombones, in addition to the requirements of the C minor Symphony. The first movement starts with a slow D major introduction, closing with the so-called Dresden Amen, a musical formula familiar from Lutheran worship, and subsequently from Wagner's Parsifal. There follows an immediate and dramatic emphasis on the key of D minor. The recapitutation is preceded by the Dresden Amen, which now ushers in a very subdued version of the principal theme, again suggesting a reminiscence of Haydn. The B flat major Allegro vivace has a contrasting Trio in G for strings and woodwind and this is followed by a G minor Andante in which the burden is carried chiefly by the strings, flutes and bassoons. This movement serves as a preface to the well known Lutheran chorale Ein' feste Burg, introduced, unexpectedly, by the flute, at once joined by the rest of the woodwind and then by other instruments, including violas and cellos from the string section. The chorale is then elaborated, before a sonata-form Allegro maestoso, with elements of the chorale re-appearing in the central development and in the conclusion to the symphony.
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland
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