Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 2, in B-flat Major, “Lobgesang” Op. 52

by Max Derrickson

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Symphony No. 2, in B-flat Major, “Lobgesang” Op. 52


Of the many excellent accomplishments of the German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), perhaps the most cherished is his reintroduction of Johann Sebastian Bach into the concert hall. When the brilliant young Mendelssohn was only 20 years old, the larger masterpieces of Bach had never been heard. It was the St. Matthew’s Passion, the manuscript of which came into the hands of Mendelssohn and his friends, that was considered to be unperformable due to its length and difficulty. Mendelssohn, however, changed all that. You might say that Mendelssohn rescued the music of Bach at the eleventh hour. Beyond this, Mendelssohn’s influence is still felt in the structure and style of concerts of the symphony orchestra (from his work with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig), and in the teaching and structure of the modern conservatory (from his founding and directorship of the Leipzig Conservatory).    [. . .]


In the year of 1840, at the age of 31, Mendelssohn was commisioned to compose a work for a grand celebration commemorating the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg. This celebration included Weber’s Jubel Overture and Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum. Mendelssohn’s contribution was his Symphony No. 2 and called it a symphony-cantata for orchestra and chorus bearing the title “Lobgesang” (Hymn of Praise or Song of Praise).


Not long before this event, we should remember that Beethoven stunned the world with his Symphony No. 9, of which the last movement included vocal soloists and chorus. Some of Mendelssohn’s cotemporaries thought his Symphony No. 2 to be a bit pretentious in the shadow the Ninth. However, this should give you some notion of the indominatable spirit of Felix Mendelssohn; he was unperturbed by this and the celebration was a mighty success. German composer Robert Schumann said of the work “The form of the work could not be more happily chosen. The whole stimulated enthusiasm, and certainly the work, particularly at the choral movement, is to be accounted one of his freshest and most charming creations…”


Indeed, the symphony-cantata is a lovely, grand, and charming work. The first three movements are for orchestra alone, playing as a sinfonia prelude to the choral cantata. Movement one, Maestoso con moto – Allegro, opens with a the sober and noble theme by the trombones, very much like a Luther hymn. This theme will link the entire work together (you will hear it plainly in the first and last choruses in the finale movement). From that theme the movement gathers momentum, but is balanced by the second subject, a gently rolling motif. Mostly, the first theme (and it’s counter subject) is developed thoroughly toward the movement’s end. From first movement, there is no doubt that Mendelssohn has set the stage for the religious feel of the whole work.

The second movement, Allegretto un poco agitato, is a delightful minuet and trio.    [. . .]

The finale brings ten vocal sections that explore a number of variations for vocal combinations. The first theme of the first movement begins this finale. And from here on this beautiful cantata exalts the heavens and our hearts. There is no doubt of the musical reference to the old hymn, “Now thank we all our God” in the Chorale, no. 8, which was a favorite of Mendelssohn’s. It was appropriate that Mendelssohn inscribed the work with a quote by Martin Luther, “But I would see all the arts, especially music, in the service of Him who gave and created them.”


Text of finale:

I. Three movements of orchestral sinfonia.


II. Chorus: “Alles was odem hat lobe den Herrn!”

All that hath breath praise the Lord!
Hallelujah, praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord with stringed instruments,
extol Him with your song,
and let all flesh praise His Holy name.
All that hath breath praise the Lord.

Soprano: “Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele”

Bless the Lord, Oh my soul, and all that is within me,
bless His Holy name!
Bless the Lord, Oh my soul, and forget not all His benefits.


III. Recitative–Tenor: “Saget es, die ihr erlost seid durch den Herrn”  [. . .]