United we pray

The Reformation Symphony: Martin Luther meets Felix Mendelssohn © Charles Thibo
The Reformation Symphony: Martin Luther meets Felix Mendelssohn © Charles Thibo

Since my time at university, I have been flirting with Martin Luther. I grew up in Luxembourg, where the Catholics outnumber any other confession, and moved later to Munich, where Catholics have the upper hand over Protestants. In Munich, halfway through my studies, I attended a Protestant mass rally – the Evangelischer Kirchentag – out of mere curiosity. I found the discussions and the open-mindedness of these believers much more inspiring than what I knew from the Catholic Church.

Protestant or Catholic?

I appreciated the austerity of Protestantism, its emphasis on the Gospel. What left a lifelong impression, was the moment when I – as an (undeclared Catholic) outsider – was invited to join what you call today a flash mob to sing along with other young people in the streets of Munich. I stopped being an outsider. That was a powerful message, and it sparked my interest in religion, the question of faith, the relation between the two large Christian communities. It was the beginning of journey that hasn’t ended yet.

A few years later, I worked in Wittenberg in Eastern Germany, where Martin Luther had preached and from where the Protestant revolution has spread through Europe and the New World. And only a few months ago, I stumbled over a composer that keeps fascinating me: Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Luther loved music and vilified Germany’s Jews as subverting society. Mendelssohn loved music too, was afraid of being rejected by the German bourgeoisie, embraced Luther’s faith, resurrected Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and wrote more than one piece of sacred music celebrating the Protestant faith. Thrilling! Potentially explosive!

“I would prefer to burn it”

In 1829/30, Mendelssohn composed his Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 107 “Reformation”, that celebrates the 300th anniversary of the Confessio Augustana, the declaration of belief by which many German cities professed their Protestant faith. Political unrest pervented the symphony from being performed at the scheduled date in 1830 and later Mendelssohn rejected it altogether. “I would prefer to burn it”, he said in 1838. Yesterday I heard it at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg, performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Beautiful. Elevating. I am glad Felix Mendelssohn did not burn it.

Mendelssohn wrote his Symphony No. 5 in four movements and quotes several pieces of sacred music: the beginning of the Gregorian Magnificat (a canticle from the Gospel of Luke), the Dresdner Amen (a 19th century choral) and a choral written by Luther and rearranged as a cantata by Bach: “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott”. At the time he wrote it, he was travelling through Europe: London – Berlin – Leipzig – Munich – Vienna – Rome. And he must have been preoccupied by questions related to faith as he composed cantatas and psalms and was busy with a sketch of a requiem service for Pius VIII and the accession of the new pope Gregory XVI.

Luther and Shostakovich

The first movement with its solemn string part – the Magnificat and the Amen. – and the dramatic effect added by the bassoons and the trombones  is my favourite part. It is full of foreboding that something dramatic is about to happen – Luther is about to nail his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Wittenberg’s main church and unleash the Protestant Revolution. The second movement provides a stark contrast to the first: Allegro vivace – an almost joyful melody that you would not expect in a symphony with a religious background. Nevertheless it makes sense if you look at it as the triumphant march of the Protestant movement.

The third, very short movement, is little less than the link to the final movement. But wait, that theme, that sounds familiar somehow… Well yes, if one would draw out the beginning of Shostakovich’s first movement of his Jazz Suite No. 1, one would get very close. Funny! The fourth movement finally shouts out the glory of God in a thundering quotation of Luther’s choral. What a tribute to faith! What a pledge of allegiance!

“Interesting for what it stands for”

According to the French scholar Brigitte François-Sappey, Mendelssohn intended the “Reformation Symphony” to prove that a reconciliation of different confessions is possible. The fusion of the Gregorian Magnificat, the Dresden Amen – Dresden being a Protestant and Catholic center of gravity at the time – and Luther’s choral point to what Catholicism and Protestantism have in common. The fact that Mendelssohn did it, adds a Jewish dimension to the piece. It emphasizes that all three confessions belong to the family of  the Abrahamic religions. The fact that the “Reformation Symphony” was not performed in 1830 in Berlin and cancelled in 1832 in Paris did not only hurt the Mendelssohn the composer, but also Mendelssohn the Believer. He complained, that the piece is “interesting not as such, but for what it stands for.” Exactly.

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe showed its excellence when performing the first and the last movement. Its sound was majestical and yet warm and welcoming. We enjoy many world class orchestras and the best soloists and conductors in Luxembourg, but last night’s performance was one for the records. The applause was long and well-deserved. Now, if you feel like listening to this fabulous piece, I can recommend the recording by the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR under Roger Norrington. It is also available on Youtube, uploaded by the hr-Sinfonieorchester (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra).

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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5 thoughts on “United we pray”

  1. And Reformed – funny thing: I just played violin in a performance of this last weekend in our local symphony. In researching for the program notes I was surprised to learn that Mendelssohn and his family were baptized into the Calvinist tradition. Not sure if he would have bought into the whole “double pre-destination” thing, but that theology must have been in the mix. Clearly he resonated with the Lutheran musical tradition, which is not surprising since Calvin found elaborate music ill-suited for the austere and puritanical worship practices he espoused.

  2. Beautiful music, yes!– after all, it’s by Mendelssohn, whose music I love! Interesting byways happen when you start with music – here we are in Theology. 🙂
    I started out, confirmed as a Augsburg-Confessional Lutheran, but I also went on various theological wanderings during my life, learning different helpful and other things along the way, and trying to learn about common ground and reasons for differences. I’ve come full circle these last years, now with better understanding of my roots, and grateful for the Church’s solid emphasis on the importance of the Scriptures. In the modern world, it makes sense to me. 🙂
    I agree that the 10 Commandments for example give a good guideline for our relationship with God and living with others. How different groups understand “salvation through God’s grace” is another matter.
    As for the awful part of Luther’s comments on Jews (to which we do not ascribe), you inspired me to look this up! I just came across this helpful article, citing statements by SELK in Germany http://www.selk-deutschland.de/, and partner churches in Australia and U.S.: http://www.selk-deutschland.de/download/Kirche-und-Judentum_1.pdf Sorry, it’s long, but much is bilingual. Page 10 has a pretty clear “summary” of Lutheran views on the subject.

    Back to music – Protestant or Catholic of all stripes – there’s superbly great stuff everywhere, and some less inspired, plus the problem of “a chacun son gout” –just as in the rest of art and life… 😉 Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  3. The Reformation Symphony is beautiful.

    Our experiences of Catholicism/Protestantism are similar and different at the same time. I grew up between Italy and France, surrounded by Catholics, although my family was of mixed religions that ended up developing into a Pantheism of sorts. As a child, my many questions to Catholic priests were often met with disapproval and the odd threat of Divine punishment.

    My first proper encounter with Anglicanism was King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. To this day I refuse to attend services unless they have an outstanding choir (prefer trebles to girls, but that’s just me). I went to university at Durham, to a very, very evangelical college where religion was a heavy, omnipresent influence. There, I am sad to say, I also came across outmoded, at times stifling intolerance. My copy of the King James was frowned upon by many other students, and my love for incense definitely disapproved of. In such an atmosphere, one cannot remain indifferent to religion. One becomes a very evangelical Evangelical, a staunch atheist, a witch or – in my case – a High Church Anglican.

    1. A witch or a sorcerer… now that would have been a really tempting option. But I didn’t like cats until very recently! I find it truly sad that the churches seem to have missed the train to the future and do not get the message through. Society would be so much better off with a few ethic principles that everybody could agree on like the Ten Commandements.

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