Very often, when a symphony acquires a nickname, the composer has nothing to do with it. Think Mozart’s Jupiter or Tchaikovsky’s Little Russian, for example. On the other hand, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy composed Lobgesang (Song of Praise), and it became known as his Symphony no. 2 only after his death. He himself called it a symphony-cantata.
Lobgesang was among Mendelssohn’s most popular works during his lifetime. Although hardly neglected today, it remains one of his less-known major works. The duet “Ich harrete des Herrn” (I Waited for the Lord) for two sopranos and chorus, however, became a well-known standalone piece frequently performed by many church choirs.
After his death, his reputation plunged. Wagner’s screed “Judaism in Music,” with its assumption that Jews were incapable of true artistic understanding, led the attack. Mendelssohn was born Jewish, and it didn’t matter to antisemites that he was a devout Christian and proud German. Many critics, antisemitic and otherwise, saw Lobgesang only as a pale imitation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Understanding Lobgesang, then, requires understanding of Mendelssohn as a religious person and what models he had in mind as he conceived the work.
Mendelssohn as Jew, as Christian
Felix Mendelssohn was born into a distinguished family in 1809. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, had been a famous Jewish philosopher. According to traditional Jewish practice, he was called Moses ben Mendel at his birth, but as an author, he wanted to help acceptance of Jews as part of the German middle class. He took the German form Mendelssohn and treated it as a family name.
Moses’ son Abraham Mendelssohn became a wealthy banker. Evidently, he did not consider his father’s efforts at assimilation successful enough. In 1816, he decided to have his children baptized into the Lutheran church. He and his wife did not get baptized until 1822.
Young Felix Mendelssohn became Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy upon his baptism. The addition of Bartholdy distinguished the Christian branch of the family from the Jewish branch. All his life, he invariably signed his name Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. As for the Jakob Ludwig, let’s not forget another famous composer’s baptismal name: Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Gottlob Mozart. Mendelssohn may not have used his full baptismal name, but it does appear on his grave marker.
Abraham Mendelssohn may have simply seen converting Christianity as a means of greater social and professional acceptance. Felix became a devout believer in Christian doctrine, as all his contemporaries recognized. That is, he was Jewish by ethnicity and fully Christian by faith. Modern scholars disagree about his attitude toward his Jewish heritage. Certainly, he never repudiated it and appears to have taken at least some pride in it. Today, he could have declared himself a Messianic Jew, but the option did not yet exist.
The occasion for the composition of Lobgesang
Mendelssohn was commissioned to compose music for the Leipzig Festival in 1840, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s printing press. He provided two pieces.
The first, in order of performance, had a very long title beginning with Festgesang. Scored for male chorus, two brass ensembles, and timpani, it was performed on June 24 in the market square. It would, by this time, be an entirely forgotten piece of occasional music if someone hadn’t paired the tune from the second part with the Christmas carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
The more ambitious Lobgesang had its premiere the following day at Thomaskirche, where J.S. Bach had long served as music director. Performance in a church hints that Mendelssohn sought to create a fusion of church music and concert music. It certainly means that he conceived it as a religious, not secular, piece.
The various celebrations of Gutenberg’s achievement in 1840 considered that he had brought light from darkness. In fact, a statue commissioned for Strasbourg’s celebration depicts Gutenberg holding a parchment proclaiming, “Let there be light.” And Gutenberg has always been best known for printing Bibles. What better way to celebrate Gutenberg than to set words from the Bible?
Lobgesang and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
Lobgesang bears superficial resemblance to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It begins with a sonata form, followed by something like a scherzo, a slow movement, and choral music. The normal order of a four-movement symphony up until Beethoven’s last symphony had the slow movement come second and the minuet or scherzo third. Mendelssohn’s placement of the slow movement would call Beethoven’s symphony to mind in any case.
Mendelssohn knew Beethoven’s symphony very well, and it certainly influenced Lobgesang. But for all his debt to Beethoven, Mendelssohn drew more on Bach’s church music for his inspiration.
Beethoven wrote a mostly instrumental piece in four distinct movements. The choral movement makes up about a third of the entire piece. Mendelssohn wrote a mostly choral piece in two major parts and intended it to be performed without pause. The strictly instrumental part is only about the first third of the piece.
Mendelssohn initially called Lobgesang a symphony for chorus and orchestra, but his friend Karl Klingemann persuaded him that symphony-cantata would be a more appropriate label for a work so dominated by the chorus and vocal soloists.
In fact, Lobgesang does not stand in the tradition of the symphony but in the tradition of large-scale commemorative works. Beethoven’s Der glorreiche Augenblick, composed for the Congress of Vienna in 1814, stands in this tradition, as does Weber’s Jubel-Cantate, composed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the accession of Friedrich August I as king of Saxony in 1818. Mendelssohn had conducted performances of both pieces. The Weber, along with Handel’s Dettinger Te Deum, was performed at the same Leipzig Festival as Lobgesang.
The structure of Lobgesang
With the religious implications of celebrating Gutenberg in mind, Mendelssohn assembled passages from Luther’s translation of the Bible that show the progression of light to darkness. The choral part begins, however, with a verse from Psalm 150, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”
Mendelssohn chose mostly psalm texts, but the text in which the darkness is most oppressive comes from Isaiah. An almost operatic tenor solo ends with the anguished question, “Watchman, will the night soon pass?” The soprano soloist and the chorus respond with assurance from Romans that the night is indeed past.
A chorale familiar to the entire audience, “Now Thank We All Our God,” follows this chorus. A soprano-tenor duet and a massive choral movement offer more praise to God and bring the piece to a close.
The opening instrumental portion begins with an unaccompanied fanfare in the trombones that occurs as a motto at key points throughout the piece. Various wind instruments refer to it in the rest of the instrumental portion. The trombones repeat it at the beginning of the choral part, and the choir sings it to the text, “All that has life and breath sing to the Lord!” The audience will recall that, in effect, the wind instruments have used their breath to praise God before the chorus sings a note.
Hints of the motto appear throughout the rest of the piece. At the very end, the trombones present it again exactly as at the beginning. The tenors and bases, unaccompanied, sing it to the verse from Psalm 150. The entire chorus, accompanied by the orchestra, repeats the same words to the motto to bring the piece to a close.
Publication history of Mendelssohn’s symphonies
Mendelssohn was among the more self-critical of composers and did not submit his works for publication until he was completely satisfied with them. Between the first and second performances of Lobgesang, Mendelssohn revised the work extensively. Among other changes, he composed three more vocal sections, including the anguished tenor solo. He finally published it as op. 52 and did not call it a symphony.
He published only two symphonies in his lifetime. The manuscript of the First Symphony bears the number 13, but by calling the published work Symphony no. 1 (op. 11), he repudiated the earlier string symphonies he had composed in his childhood.
The so-called Scottish Symphony, his last in order of composition, appeared as no. 3 (op. 56). Perhaps he intended to reserve no. 2 for his earlier Italian Symphony but wanted to revise it before publishing it. In any case, it was published after his death as no. 4 (op. 90). The so-called Reformation Symphony, second in order of composition and published even later as op. 107, became no. 5. There was still no Symphony no. 2.
In the first set of Mendelssohn’s complete works, Lobgesang appeared as the missing Symphony no. 2, even though it was the next to last in order of composition. It is not quite a symphony at all and certainly not the second of any genre.
Felix Mendelssohn: Elijah, Lobgesang, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream / Honey Meconi, The Choral Singer’s Companion
Mendelssohn as Jew: revisiting controversy on the occasion of the composer’s 200th birthday / Leon Botstein, The Musical Quarterly 92, no. 1-2 (Spring-Summer 2009): 1-8
Mendelssohn’s “Lobgesang”: a fusion of forms and textures / Stephen Town, The Choral Journal 33, no. 4 (November 1992): 19-26
Mendelssohn’s public statement of faith: “Lobgesang” as Christian witness / Gregg Lewis Brandon. Master of Music Thesis: University of Arizona, 2017
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 2 “Lobgesang” / R. Larry Todd, Talk Classical. November 20, 2013