Classics 2: Mendelssohn and Brahms

Felix Mendelssohn
Symphony No. 5 in D, op. 107, Reformation

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany on February 3, 1809, and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847. Mendelssohn composed his Reformation Symphony between the autumn of 1829 and April 1830. He conducted the first performance at the Singakademie in Berlin on November 15, 1832. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 27 minutes.


The numbering of Mendelssohn’s symphonies is completely out of joint. Since so many works—including the Reformation Symphony—were published long after his death, their order of composition was not taken into account when symphonies were published in his lifetime. The Fifth is actually his earliest formal symphony. He began it in 1829, when German Protestants were planning a festival for the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, which established the church of Martin Luther’s followers. While the conference was in session Luther wrote the most famous of his hymn texts, a paraphrase of Psalm 46, Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A mighty fortress is our God”), which became something of a battle cry for the Protestant Reformation. Bach used it in his Cantata 80 in 1730, for the 200th anniversary. Mendelssohn decided to use the melody in his own piece, designed for the 300th anniversary.

He started work in London on September 10, 1829, completing it the following April. The church festivity never took place, so there was no performance in the tercentennial year. During Mendelssohn’s visit to Paris in 1831‑32, it was rehearsed on March 17, 1832, at the Conservatory, but the performance was canceled. The musicians protested that the symphony lacked melody and was overladen with thick counterpoint. This humiliation may have left Mendelssohn without confidence in the symphony. Though he led a performance in Berlin eight months later, he dropped it after that. It was not published until 20 years after his death.

About the Music

As befits a symphony composed for a historical purpose, the 21-year-old composer shows off his familiarity with older musical traditions beyond the obvious one of Luther’s hymn. The first phrase heard in the violas consists of four notes familiar as the main theme in the last movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, or as a still older melody, a traditional contrapuntal figure, possibly derived from the plainsong Magnificat motive, which in turn goes back to an ancient melody from the Jewish synagogue. Later he quotes a familiar borrowing from the church—a particular form of Amen as harmonized for the church in Dresden by Johann Gottlieb Naumann in the late 18th century. Though used originally in a Catholic church, the “Dresden Amen” quickly spread to Protestant churches as well—and to other musical works; Wagner uses it as the Grail motive in Parsifal.

The main part of the first movement reduces the “Amen” melody to its first and last notes in fanfare style—which sounds like an allusion to the slow introduction of Haydn’s London Symphony, No. 104. The wonder of the movement is that all this historicizing fits so well into a sonata-allegro form (in which the swelling second theme is still to come). Yet for all its backward glances, it is an energetic and well‑crafted movement that builds its lengthy development section through contrapuntal interplay between the two principal themes of the Allegro con fuoco.

The second movement is a scherzo in B‑flat based on a single reiterated rhythm that runs through the main body of the movement, with a contrasting middle section, a leisurely waltz.

The slow movement, in G minor, is an aria for the violins with the accompaniment of repeated‑note chords in the other strings and an occasional response from the woodwinds. It comes to an end on a sustained G in the cellos and basses. Then the solo flute first sings, unaccompanied and unharmonized, the opening phrase of Luther’s great hymn. Gradually more instruments join in and enrich the harmonization, but just as the tune is about to close, the flute diverts it in a little cadenza, and the strings enter in a lively, syncopated 6/8 passage that modulates from G to the home tonic of D for the real beginning of the last movement. Here the themes become more stereotyped, though Mendelssohn works hard at creating a sense of monumentality, with brief fugal sections and other contrapuntal devices. Ein’ feste Burg runs through the development section, but there is little actual development as the tune leads back to the tonic for a recapitulation of the ideas we have already heard. The coda is a final majestic proclamation of the great chorale.


Johannes Brahms
Ein deutsches Requiem, op. 45

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna, on April 3, 1897. The complex history of the German Requiem is traced below. The work as we know it today was premiered on February 18, 1869, under Carl Reinecke in Leipzig, Germany. In addition to the soprano and baritone soloists and mixed chorus, the German Requiem is scored for two flutes plus piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, harp (only one part, but preferably doubled), timpani, optional organ, and strings. Duration is about 68 minutes.


The word “requiem” usually refers to the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, which begins with the Latin phrase “Requiem aeternam dona eis domine” (“Grant them eternal rest, O Lord”). Settings of the Requiem text were liturgical works for the Catholic service, intended for use in a service of prayer for the soul of the deceased.

Brahms, a north German Protestant, conceived the extraordinary idea of creating his own text, selecting Biblical passages that do not correspond to the funeral liturgy of any church, but that nonetheless represent a deeply felt response to the central problem of human existence. To distinguish his work from the Catholic Mass for the Dead, he called it Ein deutsches Requiem (“A German Requiem”).

It is not clear where Brahms got the idea for an original, non‑liturgical choral piece of this sort, but early work on the composition somewhat relieved the melancholy that haunted him at the loss of his friend Robert Schumann. One theme was first created for an intended symphony project, though it resurfaced in what is now the second movement of the German Requiem.

In the fall of 1861 Brahms laid out the text of a four‑movement cantata then dropped it for four years. A telegram from his brother on February 2, 1865, informed Brahms that his mother had suffered a stroke and was dying. At once he departed for Hamburg but arrived too late to see her. Haunted and depressed, he turned to creative work. Within two months he had completed the first, second, and fourth movements of the Requiem. Then his heavy concert schedule intervened. It took until August 1866 to complete the remainder of the work, with the exception of the fifth movement.

Three movements performed in Vienna in December 1867, in a concert devoted to Schumann’s memory, met with mixed results. The Viennese found it too austere for their taste. The third movement was actually booed (though the fault was largely that of the timpanist, who played so loudly in the extended fugue that he drowned everyone else out). The six completed movements were first performed under the composer’s baton in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday in 1868. Here Brahms achieved the first great triumph of his life—and for that reason no doubt the sweetest. But the score was still not finished. Soon after the premiere, he inserted what is now the fifth movement, with soprano solo, which, as its text indicates, is a tribute to his mother’s memory. From its premiere in Leipzig in February 1869, the piece quickly attained the rank of a classic; it was heard in Germany 20 times within the first year.

Brahms assembled his text from Luther’s translation of the Bible—from the Old and New Testaments as well as the Apocrypha. He created a universal text, one that would not follow any particular liturgy, and he even avoided any reference to the words “Jesus” or “Christ” so that the work might touch everyone equally. At the time of the premiere he explained that “German” referred only to the language in which it was sung; he would have gladly called it “A Human Requiem.” He captured a universal human experience rather than a narrow doctrinal one, and the work addressed the living, the bereaved, rather than the dead.

About the Music

The music achieves a symphonic breadth and strength that marks an important turning point in his output, while at the same time underlining the expressive significance of the texts. At every point, we encounter the classically-minded composer, whose power comes not from theatrical display but rather from carefully balanced control of harmony and rhythm, melody, and tone color.

Brahms lends a dark color to the opening by omitting the violins, piccolo, clarinets, one of his two pairs of horns, trumpets, tuba, and timpani and by subdividing the violas and cellos. The first three notes of the chorus sopranos introduce a tiny musical cell that will recur in many guises to bind the work together. Heard first in the choral sopranos at their opening “Selig sind” (“Blessed are they...”), it consists simply of the small upward leap of a third followed by another step in the same direction.

Later, as tears turn to joy, the harp, an instrument rarely found in Brahms, surges forth with a splash of bright sound.

The second movement is a slow, dark, marching passage in triple meter. The violins enter for the first time in the piece, and in a high register, as if to emphasize their previous absence. The timpani quietly sound ominous triplets. The chorus sings in unison, first softly, then in full voice as the march theme is repeated. This is the music that Brahms had composed for and then removed from his early D-minor symphony. The consoling call for patience is brightened by the woodwinds, especially at the vivid depiction of “the early rain” in the flute and harp. The somber funeral march recurs and rises to a climax. This time it turns into a wonderfully energetic chorus on “the ransomed of the Lord”; for all its power, it ends with a magical tranquility.

A baritone solo begins the third movement with a darkly urgent recitative in dialogue with the chorus. The fears and doubts grow. To the words, “In what shall I hope?” the woodwinds sing pulsating triplets that explicitly recall a passage in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (at the reference to the one who lives “above the stars”). The line grows in power to a radiant climax closing in a double fugue—one subject in the voices, another in the orchestra—over a D pedal-point.

The fourth movement is expressively in a new world, a gentle mid-point to the entire work, filled with a sublime tranquility, an easy calm.

It is followed by the afterthought that finally and truly completed the work. A soprano solo sings gently of maternal consolation.

The opening of the sixth movement reverts somewhat to the uncertainties of the third—with strange harmonic progressions that accompany the baritone’s description of the “mystery” to come. Though avoiding the overtly theatrical, Brahms’ assertion of life’s victory over death and the sarcastic taunting cry, “O death, where is thy sting?” are enormously forceful, through his marshalling of such basic classical elements as the sturdy harmonic progressions, not from operatic fanfares on extra trumpets such as those found in the Requiem settings of Berlioz or Verdi. The excitement is extended into a spacious fugue in C Major. The first three notes of the fugue subject are yet another version of the basic thematic cell of the German Requiem. Brahms employs this tiny cell to accomplish the two fortissimo climaxes in the fugue: beginning low in the cellos, basses, trombones, and tuba, a rising figure consisting entirely of chained repetitions of the basic three-note cell marches purposefully through the entire orchestral texture until picked up by the voices (“zu nehmen Preis”) and carried by the higher instruments to the most powerful and sustained chord in the entire movement. A stretto leads to a final, forceful statement.

The final movement overtly echoes the first, returning to the home key, the basic thematic cell (in double bass and cello), and the same word, “Selig” (“Blessed”). But the work of consolation has been accomplished: the blessing is now for the dead who have gone to their rest. The somber orchestral colors of the opening are gone as Brahms reinstates the clarinets, the second pair of horns, and the violins. The final section of the movement is a magical and subtle reworking of material from the opening movement. Working round to the home key of F Major, the sopranos soar to a brilliant high A (as at the end of the first movement). Here the harps enter for the first time since the middle of the second movement, beginning low under the sopranos’ highest note (on “Herrn”—“Lord”) and rising to an ethereal conclusion over the final choral murmurs of “selig” (“blessed”).

The German Requiem is Brahms’s largest work in any medium. Here, for the first time, he not only established himself as a mature composer in the eyes of his contemporaries but also wrote one of those special choral works that singers return to with as much delight as audiences, a unique masterpiece of technique and affect expressing the universal longings of mankind.



Selig sind, die da Leid tragen,
denn sie sollen getröstet werden.


Die mit Tränen säen, werden mit Freuden ernten. Sie gehen hin und weinen und tragen edlen Samen und kommen mit Freuden und bringen ihre Garben.

Blessed are they that mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
[Matthew 5:4]

They who sow in tears shall reap in joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

[Psalm 126:5-6]


Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen wie des Grases Blumen. Das Gras ist verdorret und die Blume abgefallen.

So seid nun geduldig, liebe Brüder, bis auf die Zukunft des Herrn. Siehe, ein Ackermann wartet auf die köstliche Frucht der Erde und ist geduldig darüber, bis er empfahe den Morgenregen und Abendregen.

Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen wie des Grases Blumen. Das Gras ist verdorret und die Blume abgefallen.

Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit.

Die Erlöseten des Herrn werden wieder kommen und gen Zion kommen mit Jauchzen; ewige Freude wird über ihrem Haupte sein; Freude und Wonne werden sie ergreifen, und Schmerz und Seufzen wird weg müssen.

For all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls.

[I. Peter 1:24]

Be patient therefore, dear brothers, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.

[James 5:7]

For all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls.

But the word of the Lord endures forever.

[I. Peter 1:24-25]

The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with rejoicing; everlasting joy will be on their heads: they will obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

[Isaiah 35:10]


Baritone solo:

Herr, lehre doch mich, dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss, und mein Leben ein Ziel hat und ich davon muss. Siehe, meine Tage sind einer Hand

breit vor dir, und mein Leben ist wie nichts vor dir.


Baritone, then chorus:

Ach, wie gar nichts sind alle Menschen, die doch so sicher leben! Sie gehen daher wie ein Schemen

und machen ihnen viel vergebliche Unruhe; sie sammeln, und wissen nicht wer es kriegen wird.

Nun, Herr, wes soll ich mich trösten? Ich hoffe auf dich.


Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand, und keine Qual rühret sie an.

Lord, let me know my end, and that my life has an end, and that I must accept it. Behold, my days are like a handbreadth before you, and my life is as nothing before you.




Ah, like nothing are all the men who live so surely. They go forth like a shadow, and make futile agitation for themselves; they heap up and do not know who will gather. And now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you.

[Psalm 39:4-7]




The souls of the righteous are in God’s hand, and no torment shall touch them.

[Wisdom of Solomon 3:1]


Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth! Meine Seele verlanget und sehnet sich nach den Vorhöfen des Herrn; mein Leib und Seele freuen sich in dem lebendigen Gott. Wohl denen, die in deinem Hause wohnen; die loben dich immerdar. How lovely are your dwellings, Lord of hosts! My soul longs and faints for the courts of the Lord: my body and soul rejoice in the living God. Blessed are they who dwell in your house: they will praise you forever.

[Psalm 84:1-2, 4]


Soprano and Chorus:

Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit; aber ich will euch wieder sehen, und euer Herz soll sich freuen, und eure Freude soll niemand von euch nehmen.

Ich will euch trösten, wie einen seine Mutter tröstet.



Sehet mich an: ich habe eine kleine Zeit Mühe und Arbeit gehabt und habe grossen Trost funden.

You now have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and no one shall take your joy away.

[John 16:22]

I will comfort you, as a mother comforts her child.

[Isaiah 66:13]


Look at me: I have had labor and toil for a short time, and have found great consolation.

[Ecclesiasticus 51:35]


Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt, sondern die zukünftige suchen wir.

Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis: Wir werden nicht alle entschlafen, wir werden aber alle verwandelt werden; und dasselbige plötzlich, in einem Augenblick, zur Zeit der letzten Posaune.

Denn es wird die Posaune schallen, und die Toten werden auferstehen unverweslich, und wir werden verwandelt werden.

Dann wird erfüllet werden das Wort, das geschrieben steht:

“Der Tod ist verschlungen in den Sieg. Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg?

Herr, du bist würdig zu nehmen Preis und Ehre und Kraft, denn du hast alle Dinge geschaffen, und durch deinen Willen haben sie das Wesen und sind geschaffen.

For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one to come.

[Hebrews 13:14]

See, I tell you a secret: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of any eye, at the last trumpet.

For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be transformed.

The shall the word that was written be fulfilled:

Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your sting? Hell, where is your victory?

[I. Corinthians 15:51-51, 54-55]


Lord, you are worthy to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they exist and were created.

[Revelation 4:11]


Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrn sterben, von nun an. Ja, der Geist spricht, dass sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit; denn ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on: Yes, the Spirit says that they rest from their work, for their works follow after them.

[Revelation 14:13]

© Steven Ledbetter  (