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The symphony Mendelssohn wanted to burn

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton


Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn

Mention Mendelssohn and all manner of magical music comes to mind, none more so than the soundtrack he composed to accompany a Prussian royal command performance of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1843.

The playful Scherzo from that selection - which also includes the famous Wedding March - echoes something that was written much earlier, the second movement of his Symphony No 5.

It's actually the second of the five symphonies that Mendelssohn wrote, dating from 1829 when he was 20 years of age.

He already had the first of those under his belt when he turned his attention to a special project - music to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, the basis of the Lutheran or Protestant faith.

The Mendelssohns were a Jewish family from Hamburg who had renounced their religion and become Christians. They were, to paraphrase the contemporary poet Heinrich Heine, who had taken a similar step, securing their ticket of admission into European culture.

They had their children baptised, and changed their name to something they felt more appropriate. The one they chose - Bartholdy - was connected to a farm owned by an uncle. Felix opted to retain both. In his native Germany, he's known as Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

By the time he'd reached 20, Felix Mendelssohn was a renowned musician. He would have been an obvious choice to provide the music for the tercentenary celebrations. Though there was no actual commission for the work, Mendelssohn clearly felt there would be a place for it in the schedule.

The music presents the clash between the Catholic church and the Lutheran protesters. The six-note motif known as the Dresden Amen, which features right at the start, presents the Catholic side, the Martin Luther hymn Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God) is the basis for the finale, the musical representation of the Reformation, the title given to the work by Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny Hensel.

The symphony was the most ambitious task Mendelssohn had yet set himself, grand in scale, scored for a full orchestral complement. This monumental undertaking wasn't helped by the fact that he contracted measles and was laid low for a time.

Mendelssohn didn't finish the work until the May of 1830, just a month before the commemoration. It didn't make it on to the playlist.

There followed a struggle to get it performed at all. More than two years would pass before the public got to hear this new work. With Mendelssohn himself conducting, his Symphony to Celebrate the Church Revolution was performed for the first time in Berlin in November 1832. The reviews were mixed, and the composer, always his own harshest critic, withdrew it from circulation.

By 1838, he was declaring it juvenile, saying he thought he should burn it. But he didn't. He simply refused to allow it to be performed again, and it remained unpublished when he died in 1847 at the age of 38.

It finally emerged in a posthumous collection, released in 1868. Chronologically, it had preceded three of his five symphonies, but as the final one to appear in print, it would be numbered as if it was his last.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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