The first page of Bach's "Ein Feste Burg" chorale prelude

Looking over the program for the concert Stéphane Denève will conduct with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra this weekend (Friday and Saturday, February 11 and 12), it strikes me that there are three themes running through it. Two are musical and one is religious.

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Let’s get religion out of the way first. All of the composers on the program were Christian but the wide range of their beliefs demonstrates that there can be, indeed, many mansions in that house. Haydn was a devout Roman Catholic. Mendelssohn was a Reformed Christian by conversion (his family was Jewish), Wagner was technically Christian but disdained key parts of the religion (including the Ten Commandments), and Bach was a devout Lutheran.

Leopold Stokowski in a classic pose

That brings us to the first musical theme of the evening, Martin Luther’s hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”). It and other Lutheran hymns were key components of many of Bach’s most admired works, including the “St. Matthew Passion,” his 200-plus cantatas, and the many chorale preludes he wrote based on those hymns. These were elaborate contrapuntal fantasies on tunes that his audience would have known well, including the one that forms the basis for the first two works in this concert: Bach’s Chorale Prelude on “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” BWV 720. Get used to hearing Luther’s tune, as it makes a triumphant reappearance at the end of the evening.

We won’t be hearing Bach’s original organ work but rather two very different arrangements of it, played attacca (back to back, without pause). The first is by the famed conductor and arranger Leopold Stokowski and the second by someone far less celebrated: German-born American composer and conductor Walter Damrosch. Both Stokowski and Damrosch were tireless promoters of classical music to the public at large, so it seems only right for them to be combined here.

In short, we get Martin Luther by way of Bach as arranged by Stokowski and Damrosch. Assuming, of course, that Bach wrote BWV 720 in the first place. The original is, as the folks at the Netherlands Bach Society point out, “a one-off, undated piece, whose authorship is even doubted by some.” No matter; it’s eight minutes of orchestral color and, in the case of the Stokowski arrangement, a local premiere.

Up next is Haydn’s "Sinfonia concertante.” It dates from a time when the form of the solo concerto was not as well established as it would later become, so works for multiple solo instruments and orchestra were common. Haydn wrote his exactly 230 years ago (February and March 1792) for the first of his two visits to London, a city that embraced him both artistically and financially (“I made four thousand guilders this evening,” wrote Haydn after the 1795 premiere of his 104th symphony).

The work’s genesis lay in a bit of commercial and personal rivalry. As Scott Fogelsong wrote in the San Francisco Examiner in 2009, Haydn’s former student Ignatz Pleyel (who went on to fame and fortune as the founder of piano manufacturers Pleyel et Cie) “had been making waves in the London concert scene during the same season, and quite possibly Haydn's work was a direct response to Pleyel's popular works.” In fact, Pleyel had been engaged by a rival concert promoter seeking to grab some of Haydn’s audience. “A bloody harmonious war will commence between master and pupil,” wrote Haydn. “The newspapers are all full of it, but it seems to me that there will soon be an armistice.”

Haydn was right. The commercial battle never became personal, and the two remained friends.

It might have helped that Haydn’s piece was a hit. It’s light, entertaining, and shows off the solo instruments to great advantage. Audiences loved it, as did the press. "A new concertante from HAYDN combined with all the excellencies of music," gushed the Morning Herald the next day; "it was profound, airy, affecting, and original, and the performance was in unison with the merit of the composition." The soloists playing those "excellencies" this weekend are all members of the home team: Principal oboe Jelena Dirks, Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo, Assistant Principal Second Violin Eva Kozma, and cellist Bjorn Ranheim. It's always good to see the local folks in the spotlight.

The "Dresden Amen"

The concerts conclude with a pair of works that share a common musical motif: a six-note progression known as the “Dresden amen." Composed by Johann Gottlieb Naumann (1741-1801) for use in Dresden’s court chapel in the late 1700s, it became a popular way to sing “Amen” for both Catholic and Protestant congregations in the 19th century. It was also quoted by a wide range of composers, from Louis Spohr to the decidedly non-Christian Alexander Scriabin.

Richard Wagner uses the “Dresden Amen” as a recurring leitmotif to represent the Holy Grail in “Parsifal,” his last opera, the Prelude to which opens the second half of the program. Reverent and majestic, the Prelude uses silence and harmonic ambivalence to establish an unearthly sense of space and the sense of time slowing down that one often encounters in the symphonies of Bruckner. The quiet restatement of the “Dresden Amen” at the end is a perfect segue into the opening of the final work on the program, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 (“Reformation”), which opens with an equally quiet version of the “Amen” in the strings and closes with a joyous restatement of our old friend “Ein Feste Burg.”

The symphony’s nickname—which comes not from Felix Mendelssohn but rather from his sister Fanny—refers to the fact that it was originally intended for a celebration of the 300th anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The document is a cornerstone of the Lutheran faith, and the celebration in Berlin on June 25th, 1830 was a Very Big Deal, backed up by the Prussian King Frederick William III. Having a new symphony played as part of the festivities would have been a major coup for the 21-year-old composer.

Sadly, it was not to be. Mendelssohn started work on the symphony in January of 1830 and would have had it ready in time for the festivities had it not been for a case of measles—a serious business in those days before vaccines. Possible consequences of measles infections in adults include hearing loss, which would have been a disaster for a composer, Beethoven’s example to the contrary.

Fortunately, Mendelssohn made a full recovery, but not in time to submit the work for the big event. The composer tried to get it performed in Paris, but it was rejected as “too learned” (whatever that may mean). As R. Larry Todd suggested in Mendelssohn—A Life in Music, it might also have been seen as too Protestant. Mendelssohn finally conducted the premiere in Berlin in 1832 but reviews were unenthusiastic and the composer himself ultimately turned against it, declaring the only one of his compositions he “would most like to see burnt.”

Portrait of Mendelssohn by
James Warren Childe
(1778–1862), 1839

History’s verdict has been a bit kinder. As Janet E. Badell writes in notes for the Boston Symphony, it’s a “stirring, richly contrapuntal work” that “has finally come into its own as one of Mendelssohn's most frequently performed scores.” It might not be quite as popular as the “Italian” or “Scotch” symphonies, but it probably but it probably deserves to be, as it has much to offer.

The opening movement, after the Andante statement of the “Dresden Amen” in D major, quickly modulates to a dramatic Allegro con fuoco in D minor that bristles with an angry energy suggesting the conflict between the established Catholic church and Luther’s protest movement. The conflict is resolved in a triumphant restatement of Luther’s hymn in the final movement, while the graceful Allegro vivace second movement and the lyrical Andante third act as calm interludes between storms. Its programmatic intent notwithstanding, it’s a wonderfully varied and appealing work that seems to me to be a perfect way to wrap up the concert.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra along with soloists Jelena Dirks (oboe), Andrew Cuneo (bassoon), Eva Kozma (violin), and Bjorn Ranheim (cello) in arrangements of Bach’s Choral Prelude "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," BWV 720, Haydn’s “Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat major, the Prelude to Act I from Wagner’s “Parsifal,” and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D major (“Reformation”). Performances are Friday at 10:30 and Saturday at 8 pm, February 11 and 12, at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. Saturday’s concert will also be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classical 107.3 both over the air and on the Internet.

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