Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy / lithograph by Friedrich Jentzen for Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung 39 (1837), after a painting by Theodor Hildebrandt via Wikimedia Commons
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. Continue reading →
Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms has become one of his most popular and enduring works. It started out as a case of life happening while Bernstein was making other plans.
Conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra kept Leonard Bernstein from composing much for more than a decade. He took a sabbatical from the orchestra in 1965 to compose a Broadway musical based on The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder.
He eventually abandoned that project, but before taking the sabbatical, he had received an invitation from Walter Hussey, the Dean of Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England. Hussey wanted Bernstein to compose a new piece for the Southern Cathedrals Festival, to be hosted by Chichester Cathedral in July 1965. He wrote, “Many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.” Continue reading →
As an undergraduate composition student in the 1970s, I tried to like the music that my teachers thought important, including Webern, Stockhausen, Cage, et al. General audiences have never liked it, and I never did manage to like the music only an academic can love.
Inevitably a new generation of composers arose, but it was only after one of my graduate students invited me to a concert of mostly sacred choral music by Henryk Górecki in 1994 that I heard any European post-avant-garde music.
A surprising number of devoutly Christian composers lived and worked in countries of the former Soviet bloc, including Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki of Poland, and Arvo Pärt of Estonia. They all have a strained relationship with the Western European post-war avant-garde. Continue reading →
Today’s post marks the last time I can possibly write anything to honor Benjamin Britten’s centennial. I have already written a program note to The Young Peoples’ Guide to the Orchestra,but I especially love A Ceremony of Carols.
Its composition is part of the same narrative I wrote about before. Britten and Peter Pears were visiting the United States when the Second World War broke out. He mentioned to Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that he wanted to compose an opera but couldn’t afford it. So Koussevitsky commissioned him to write it.
At about the same time, Britten decided to return to England, which required a sea voyage made especially dangerous by German submarine warfare. He composed music, including A Ceremony of Carols, on the voyage, finished the opera Peter Grimes once back in England, became internationally famous, and composed The Young Peoples’ Guide to the Orchestra shortly thereafter. Continue reading →
Portrait of Mozart wearing the Order of the Golden Spur that he received in 1770 in Rome from Pope Clement XIV / contemporary copy of lost original, artist and copyists unknown
Mozart’s Requiem, the last piece he ever worked on, has a trombone solo in the Tuba mirum movement. So far as I know, there is nothing like it anywhere in the standard sacred music repertoire. The important word in that sentence is “standard.”
People who wrote about musical performances in the nineteenth century were all too aware of the uniqueness of that solo. Throughout the century in every country from which I have seen magazine or newspaper articles, critics rarely mentioned the trombones in classical music except to complain that they were too loud. Along with more than one author of music books, they declared that a trombone solo was one of Mozart’s innovations they were glad no one else picked up.