Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was the grandson of the famous Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who strongly promoted Jewish assimilation into German culture and society. Mendelssohn’s father converted the family to the Lutheran faith when Felix was seven years old, adopting the additional surname Bartholdy, which was the name of a family estate. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to Mendelssohn’s smaller sacred works, on texts associated with the Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran traditions. A fair amount of his music features familiar Protestant chorales (the Reformation Symphony, with its citation of Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, and St. Paul begins by quoting ‘Wachet auf’), and could be read as an avowal of musical Protestantism. Yet the composer also produced a significant number of Catholic settings, including Lauda Sion, offered today, as well as works intended for the Anglican Church. Mendelssohn was even invited to compose some cantata-like psalm settings for the New Israelite Temple of Hamburg, which consecrated a new building in 1844 (nothing appears to have survived of this musical commission).
The hymn Lauda Sion is a rarely heard work today and unfairly so owing to its exceptionally high quality. It was composed in 1846 as a result of a commission for the Catholic Church at St. Martin’s at Liège. The assignment was to celebrate a new setting of the Corpus Christi sequence of St. Thomas Aquinas on the 600th anniversary of the founding of the feast of Corpus Christi. The original plainchant melody survives in popular use, as do settings by polyphonic composers such as Palestrina and Victoria. Mendelssohn may himself have been familiar with one or more of such settings, such as the Lauda Sion of Luigi Cherubini. He is on record as remarking to Schumann that “old Italian music wafted over him like incense”. What is quite certain is that Mendelssohn was familiar with the traditional plainchant of Lauda Sion. He quotes the old melody three times in the central chorus of the composition, Docti sacris institutis [Those learned in the sacred institutions]. Written at the same time Mendelssohn was feverishly working on Elijah for its premiere at the Birmingham Festival in 1846, the sunny, Italianate style of Lauda Sion is in contrast to much of his Protestant sacred music that celebrates the chromatic austerities and complexities of J. S. Bach’s music.
Lauda Sion unfolds from a radiant movement in C major for the choir. A second chorus, links the Eucharist to the Last Supper (Laudis thema specialis). The third movement is an exultant hymn in which a lovely melody is thrown back and forth between soprano soloist and full choir in a mood that borders on the ecstatic, towards the very end of which the tenors and basses incant a stanza about the solemnity of the feast.
The core of the composition, the fourth through sixth movements, turns to the “dogma given to Christians” (dogma datur christianis), and the ceremony of the Eucharist. Here Mendelssohn turned to ritualistic counterpoint, for centuries associated with the high style of sacred polyphony. Thus, in the fourth movement the New Covenant is allied with canons for pairings of four solo voices. In the fifth movement the chant melody is intoned by the chorus in unison three times (a reference to the Trinity), as the bread and wine are consecrated, and then, in a fourth statement, inverted to the bass voice as Christ’s presence is felt through “different signs, not things” (sub diversis speciebus). The same text figures in for the sixth movement, a chorale fugue.
The seventh movement, a soprano aria, reminds the us that the breaking of bread does not divide Christ but “accepts Him whole.” Rhetoric and drama abound as the final movement begins with a vision of the multitudes taking Communion and awaiting the Final Judgment. The concluding Alla breve for quartet and chorus is a fervent prayer for mercy and the work ends with a hushed Amen.