Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was an enormously talented and versatile composer, conductor and performer. He was the grandson of the famous Jewish philosopher MosesMendelssohn, who strongly promoted Jewish assimilation into German culture and society. Mendelssohn’s father converted the family to the Lutheran faith whenFelix was a young boy, adopting the additional surname Bartholdy, which was the name of a family estate.

Surprisingly little attention has been paid toMendelssohn’s smaller sacred works. They include a series of eight chorale cantatas, inspired equally by Mendelssohn’s admiration for the music of Bach whose music had particular meaning for him since childhood. After entering theBerlin Sing Akademie in 1820, he made an intensive study of Bach’s motets, cantatas, and oratorios. His performance of the St Matthew Passion, famously revived in Berlin in 1829 at the age of 20, became the culmination of both his theoretical and practical study of Bach.

Mendelssohn had embarked on a grand tour of Europe immediately after conducting the second performance of the Matthew Passion, and he wrote his three-movement cantata O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden in 1830 in Vienna. He selected the first and last verses of the hymn for the outer movements of the cantata, set for the chorus. The second movement, with a text from an unknown source, is set for bass solo. The hymn tune appears as a cantus firmus for the sopranos in the first movement, is briefly quoted in the second movement, and is set fairly conventionally in the final movement. Hassler’s unusual melody neither starts nor ends on a root tone, and there is an inherent ambiguity which allows the tune to be cast either in a major or a minor key. Mendelssohn delighted in this tonal ambiguity, writing to his younger sister Rebecka that “no one will be able to discern whether it will be in C-minor or E-flat.”

Unlike O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, Mendelssohn’s hymn setting Verleih uns Frieden was constructed as a song for choir without cantus firmus. While set to a Luther text, the melody is all Mendelssohn.  Composed in 1831, the text and melody are presented three times: first sung by the basses alone, the second time by the altos with bass counterpoint, and finally with four-part chorus.  Mendelssohn’s original plan, a “canon with cello and basses,” ultimately required full strings and woodwinds.  

Given the brevity of our cantata, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, Mendelssohn’s prayer for peace Verleih uns Frieden fulfills the needed coda as we venture into Holy Week.

©Ryan Turner

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