Program notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason (www.shavergleason.com)
The year 1830 marked the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, a founding document of Lutheranism which contained 28 articles of faith and led to political recognition of German Protestantism. Twenty-one-year-old Felix Mendelssohn intended to write a symphony as part of the Berlin celebration to be held that June, but unfortunately he contracted the measles, which delayed his composing. Although he finished the Symphony no. 5 in D minor, op. 107, “Reformation” in May, it was too late to be part of the festivities. Mendelssohn attempted to have the symphony premiered in Paris, but it was rejected, possibly because of all the overtly Protestant references throughout the work. Finally, the symphony had its premiere in Berlin in 1832, by which point Mendelssohn’s enthusiasm for the work had cooled. Ever the perfectionist, he eventually considered the work unpublishable and expressed wishes that the manuscript be burnt, calling it “juvenilia.” In the years following his death in 1848, audiences in England were overcome by “Mendelssohn Mania,” and publishers capitalized on their fanaticism by producing editions of the composer’s previously unpublished works. The symphony, published in 1868, was part of this posthumous proliferation, which is why it is numbered as his final symphony despite being chronologically the second one that he wrote.
The symphony begins with a solemn Andante, building layer upon layer to create a thick texture reminiscent of a church organ. After a noble brass fanfare, the strings present a quiet figure that is crucial to the symphony—a six-note quotation from 18th-century Saxony liturgy called the “Dresden Amen.” The fanfare and amen repeat before Mendelssohn launches into the turbulent Allegro con fuoco, with vigorous strings and confrontational winds and brass. The Dresden Amen makes another appearance shortly before the end of the movement, but rather than preserving the otherworldly tranquility, the thematic material simmers ominously before the final chords erupt. The Allegro vivace is, by contrast, quite chipper; the woodwinds skip along, then entice the brass and strings to join them until the whole ensemble frolics together. The middle section presents a carefree dance with soaring melody and fluttering accompaniment. The third movement, Andante, primarily features the strings as the first violins unfurl a tragic melody. Woodwinds provide minimal commentary, including a short quotation from the first movement. The cellos and basses hold onto their last pitch as a solo flute begins the Andante con moto with the most famous music associated with Martin Luther: the chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”). Once again, Mendelssohn imitates the Lutheran organ with thick textures built up in layers, including a few technical fugues. Rather than sounding oppositional and chaotic as in the first movement, however, the overall mood is triumphant, befitting the grand celebration for which the symphony was originally intended.
Although Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major is commonly known as the “Emperor” concerto, the nickname did not originate with the composer. In fact, the period in which Beethoven composed it seems a particularly inappropriate time to venerate any emperor. In the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, the Austrian Emperor Franz I was about to cede substantial territory to the French Emperor Napoleon. As French troops bombarded Vienna, the composer took shelter in his brother’s cellar, covering his ears with pillows in an attempt to preserve what was left of his hearing. In frustration, Beethoven wrote to his publisher, “…I have produced very little coherent work, at most a fragment here and there. The whole course of events has in my case affected both body and soul….What a destructive, disorderly life I see and hear around me, nothing but drums, cannons, and human misery in every form.” Yet in these deplorable conditions between 1809 and 1811, Beethoven wrote his most celebrated piano concerto.
The first movement, Allegro, begins with a decisive chord from the orchestra followed by a cadenza-like flourish from the piano. This occurs three times, with each piano statement more elaborate than the last; the piano firmly establishes its authority at the outset, then retreats to let the orchestra present the main themes of the movement. Given Beethoven’s circumstances, perhaps it is not surprising that these themes have martial connotations—the first theme, introduced by the first violins and then echoed by the entire ensemble, contains dotted rhythms and wide, consonant leaps associated with bugle calls; the second, contrasting theme is a subdued march. Beethoven musically depicts these militaristic elements in a heroic fashion, seemingly at odds with his apparent war weariness. The solo piano makes a triumphant entrance, initiating its long-awaited return with a sweeping chromatic run. Next, it transforms the boisterous first theme into a more contemplative chorale. Under the piano’s leadership, the orchestra is able to fully realize its march with requisite bombast. After a virtuosic campaign, the piano leaves the orchestra to its own devices for a bit, reemerging with another chromatic run to announce the development. In this harmonically unstable section, the soloist seems at odds with the ensemble, engaging in an antagonistic call and response. As hostilities subside, the piano retreats to its uppermost register, and the violas reassert the first few notes of the initial theme. This fragment catches on with the rest of the orchestra, setting up a grand restatement of the opening chords, with the piano’s mini-cadenzas more brilliant than ever. No longer at odds with each other, piano and orchestra revisit the themes together.
The relatively short Adagio un poco mosso begins earnestly, with the strings in a chorale texture. The melody sounds simple and straightforward, but then it strives upward with an ambitious leap of a minor seventh. The leap occurs twice, falling back down each time, but the melody continues toward its goal with a slow, steady climb. Leonard Bernstein found the melody so captivating that he quoted portion of it in “Somewhere,” the yearning duet from West Side Story. Even after the soloist enters, the melody remains the focus of the movement as it passes between the strings and woodwinds; the piano’s part comes across as tasteful filigree, a complement to the noble simplicity of the melody. The piano only commands attention at the end of the movement, as its assertive chords hint at the theme of the next movement. Indeed, the final Allegro follows immediately; the piano bursts forth with the galloping rondo theme, which the orchestra echoes in kind. As is typical for a rondo, this boisterous melody recurs several times in alternation with contrasting passages that allow the piano more opportunities to show off before the orchestra brings the concerto to a satisfying conclusion.