Symphony-Cantata: Hymn of Praise Op. 52
Unusual pieces of music like this one generally struggle to find their place in the repertoire. Of all Mendelssohn symphonies, this is the most rarely performed nowadays and, as you will hear, that truly is a shame. Clearly, he was very proud of it himself. Mendelssohn was a notorious perfectionist, and many of his works — including popular symphonies — were not published until after his death. However, this symphony made it into print almost immediately, which is altogether appropriate considering why it was written.
It was commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing press. Importantly for Mendelssohn, it would be performed in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche — the very church in which his idol, J.S. Bach, had served as Kapellmeister. He responded to the commission by pulling together texts from the Psalms, Isaiah, and two of Paul’s Epistles to create what he called “a kind of universal thanksgiving on the words of the last Psalm [Psalm 150, vs. 6], ‘Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.’”
The Mendelssohn family used to call this piece the Printers Cantata, but there is nothing ostensibly about printing here. The texts simply link the anniversary celebration to the famous Gutenberg Bible. The influence of Bach, however, is tangible everywhere. As Kapellmeister, Bach had produced cantata after cantata for the Thomaskirche, and this historic resonance would not have been lost on Mendelssohn. Although there is no standard format for a Bach cantata, the structure Mendelssohn deploys here could easily have been used by his distinguished musical ancestor. Also, like Bach, he integrates a Lutheran chorale (“Nun danket alle Gott,” familiar as the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God”) into his music.
There is plenty to relish in this symphony, not least the concluding “Hallelujah Chorus,” which brought its first English audience to its feet. The best-known movement is the soprano duet with chorus “I waited for the Lord.” After hearing the first performance, Robert Schumann said that “it was akin to glimpsing Heaven filled with Raphael Madonnas.”