Do you know what today is? Sure you do. So let’s talk about Felix Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony. Say what?
Given that today is October 31st, you might be expecting a commentary about Halloween. Well, we covered that on Friday. Instead we want to talk about another celebration that takes place today, and that is Reformation Day.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther wrote a letter to the archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg protesting the sale of indulgences. In the letter he enclosed what he called “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” which came to be known as his “95 Theses.”
Today also kicks off a year-long commemoration of that momentous event that will culminate next October 31st in the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Lots of ink, both actual and digital, will be expended in telling us what it meant and continues to mean, and by the way, I’m writing a biography of Martin Luther right now—stay tuned.
But for today, I want to turn your attention to the art inspired by the events of that day. Specifically I want to tell you about Felix Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony, better known as his “Reformation Symphony.”
The occasion of its composition was the 300th anniversary of another milestone in the Reformation, the Augsburg Confession, which defined Lutheran beliefs.
As the program notes to a recent performance of the symphony by the Los Angeles Philharmonic tells us, “As a devout Protestant himself and a boundless admirer of Bach … Mendelssohn felt drawn by the idea of a symphony that symbolized the Protestant Reformation not with a grand choral work on a sacred text, as might be expected, but with a four-movement symphony without words.”
So despite being ill, Mendelssohn spent the winter of 1829-30 composing a symphony whose fourth movement is built around Martin Luther’s great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” exactly three hundred years after Luther composed his hymn.
The first movement wordlessly “carries the notion of conflict, at first in the slow introduction where clarion figures seem to call out for reform over the aspiring counterpoint in the lower strings.” What follows is a musical reference to the six-note sequence known as the “Dresden Amen.”
What follows that is the musical equivalent of anger and chaos, brought under control by another reference to the Dresden Amen.
And that sets the state for the triumphant finale ushered by a single flute playing the greatest of Reformation hymns. The entire orchestra picks up the theme and drives home the “Mighty” in Luther’s hymn without uttering a single word.
Oddly enough, the symphony was not popular. Critics objected to Mendelssohn’s attempt to convey specific ideas in a purely orchestral work. It wasn’t published until 1868, 21 years after Mendelssohn’s death. But thankfully, we still have it today. In fact, I’d like to play for you a portion of the Reformation Symphony:
Like the hymn that inspired it, Mendelssohn’s work has stood the test of time. And great art, like the truth that inspires it, “abideth still.”
Happy Reformation Day.
A Symphony for Reformation Day: Mendelssohn’s Fifth
Click on the links below for more details on the Reformation, and to listen to Movement #4 of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, built on Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”