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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Volkstümlichkeit
Richard Taruskin

To see the chorale in action in its new and highly fraught cultural context, we can survey the way it is employed in Paulus (“St. Paul”), an oratorio by Felix Mendelssohn (1809–47), composed between 1832 and 1836 and performed to great acclaim in Düsseldorf under the twenty-seven-year-old composer's highly experienced baton at the 1836 Lower Rhine Music Festival. Choosing this piece will offer a further perspective on the relationship between religious and national culture in Germany as mediated by the oratorio, since the composer was by birth neither a Protestant nor a Catholic, but a Jew.

The plot of Mendelssohn's oratorio, assembled from scripture by the composer with the assistance of his friend, the Lutheran theologian Julius Schubring, concerned the career of the Apostle Paul of Tarsus, born a Jew, who, after an early career as a persecutor of Jewish heretics (i.e., Christians), received a divine revelation on the road to Damascus and devoted the rest of his life to preaching the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles. As the story of a convert, a Jew turned Christian, it was the story of Mendelssohn as well. By choosing to write an oratorio, moreover, the composer was acting exactly in the Apostle's footsteps, turning away from his own former community and preaching the Gospel to the gentiles. The autobiographical component ran deep, and surely helped motivate the choice of subject.

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), the famous Jewish philosopher and apostle of eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Yet despite descent from what might be called the German-Jewish aristocracy, the future composer's father Abraham Mendelssohn, a banker, had his children baptized in 1816 to facilitate their assimilation, as “emancipated Jews”—Jews who enjoyed full civil rights—into German society. (Abraham himself and his wife converted to Protestantism in 1822 and signaled the fact by adding the Christian surname Bartholdy to the family name; the composer is sometimes called Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.) Mendelssohn's oratorio thus became in its way an allegory not only of the composer's own career, but of the family history as well.

Yet like the genre to which it belonged, it was also an allegory of the German nation, thanks to the chorales. Nor was this the first time chorales had played a symbolic role in a work by Mendelssohn. In 1829, right after his epochal St. Matthew Passion performance, he had accepted a commission for a symphony, now known as the “Reformation” Symphony, to be performed the next year in commemoration of the three-hundredth anniversary of the “Augsburg Confession,” which marked the official beginning of German Protestantism as a genuine “ism” and a national church. Traditional Lutheran music figures in various parts of the symphony.

Mendelssohn and Civic Nationalism

fig. 3-3 Felix Mendelssohn, pencil portrait by Johann Joseph Schmeller (1830).

The slow introduction to the first movement, for example, made the Lutheran response formula known as the “Dresden Amen” familiar to concert audiences. (It was first used in a Passio germanica—German Passion oratorio—by a sixteenth-century Dresden cantor named Joseph Schlegel, who possibly composed it; but it quickly became “traditional.”) The finale was an impressive chorale fantasia on Luther's hymn “Ein’ feste Burg” (“A mighty fortress”), in which the “episodes” outlined a concurrent symphonic-binary (“sonata form”) structure. In its combination of novelty and antiquarianism, virtuosity and spirituality, all in the name of a national religious commemoration that presaged a national regeneration, the symphony was an apt symbol of a moment in the life of the German nation, and put its twenty-one-year-old composer at the forefront of the nation's musical establishment.

Or would have, had the celebration for which the work was commissioned not been called off. Mendelssohn did eventually reach the pinnacle of German civic music life, albeit a bit more slowly than at first predicted, but it was Paulus, rather than the “Reformation” Symphony, that proved the breakthrough composition.

The oratorio was conceived in the wake of the eventual first performances of the symphony, which took place in Berlin and London, under the composer's baton, in 1832. Where Ein’ feste Burg had been the inevitable choice to symbolize the Reformation itself, the chief chorale in Paulus is “Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme” (usually translated “Sleepers, wake! a voice is calling”), on which J. S. Bach had based one of his most famous cantatas (BWV 140). It was an equally inevitable choice for an oratorio that is all about receiving God's call and spreading God's truth.

The Overture is in effect a prelude and fugue for a traditionally brass-heavy “festival” orchestra (updated with trombones and “serpent” or S-shaped proto-tuba) in which the chorale melody is heard first, straightforwardly harmonized, in the prelude and then, stripped down to its first line, as a motto-style cantus firmus sounding in proclamatory counterpoint, mainly in the winds, against the working out of the fugue, mainly in the strings. The climax comes with the regaining of the prelude's major mode and the full statement of the chorale in massed winds against continuing rushing figuration in the strings.

This is Mendelssohn at his most retrospective or “historical.” But it is important to keep in mind the primary purpose or function of this stylistic retrospectivism, and the reason why it was so highly valued by audiences: it furthered the agenda of cultural nationalism by creating the conditions through which—to quote Ernst Moritz Arndt yet one more time—“history enters life and life itself becomes part of history.”21 Such music advanced the high ethical cause of public edification. Its style as such was a function of its purpose.

Mendelssohn and Civic Nationalism

fig. 3-4 Wind and brass instruments, as illustrated in Diderot's Encyclopédie. The serpent is at the upper left.

The Overture is answered, as it were, by the chorale setting that follows the scene of Paul's conversion (Ex. 3-16). This is a setting very much in the style of certain Bach chorales, in which a simple harmonization is accompanied by orchestral “illustrations.” Here the illustration consists of massed brass fanfares to provide a properly gleaming recollection of the divine manifestation, in which the voice of God is described in scripture as being accompanied by a blinding light. Heinrich Schütz, the great German Protestant master of the seventeenth century, had used a full chorus in echo style to represent that voice; Mendelssohn used the choral sopranos and altos, divided into four parts, accompanied by an aureole of winds and brass.

Because of the brass interventions, it is unlikely that the audience (representing the “congregation”) could have joined in the singing of the chorale. But there was nothing to prevent their joining in the singing of the first chorale in Paulus (Ex. 3-17) and literally becoming a Gemeinschaft, a “community” of coreligionists or compatriots. Mendelssohn did not specifically call for such audience participation, and probably did not expect it. Other latter-day oratorio composers, however, did call for it; and even where the audience remained silent, it was clear to all that a simple chorale setting like Ex. 3-17 represented the singing of a Gemeinschaft that symbolically included all those present.

Mendelssohn and Civic Nationalism

ex. 3-16 Felix Mendelssohn, Paulus, Chorale (no. 16), beginning

Mendelssohn and Civic Nationalism

ex. 3-17 Felix Mendelssohn, Paulus, Chorale (no. 2), beginning

The remaining chorale settings in Paulus are two. “O Jesu Christe, wahres Licht” (“O Jesus Christ, light of truth”), another chorale that makes reference to Paul's conversion, is set in a somewhat more elaborate style than Ex. 3-16, with a full-fledged ritornello, replete with imitative counterpoint, that intervenes between the lines of every verse. The last chorale setting, by far the most significant both symbolically and musically, is the one sampled in Ex. 3-18. Here Paul, having found his true calling, is addressing the Heathen, who have just mistaken him and his miracle-performing companion Barnabas for the gods Jupiter and Mercury. He rebukes them for their idolatry, preaching that “God does not reside in temples made by human hands.” Instead, he exhorts them, “You yourselves are God's temple, and the Spirit of God dwells in you.”

These words are then given illustration by Mendelssohn in a remarkable exchange between St. Paul and the chorus. Paul sings, “Aber unser Gott ist im Himmel, er schaffet Alles was er will” (“But our God is in heaven; he creates all according to his will”). The melody to which the Apostle sings these words is not a chorale; rather it is a volkstümlich tune of a type that can be plausibly transferred to a crowd of Heathen “folks.” When they take up the refrain, however, their counterpoint, doubled discreetly by the strings, becomes the background or accompaniment to a chorale melody sung by the second sopranos (till now held in reserve), illustrating the notion that their singing bodies, providing a “home” for the chorale melody, are indeed the dwelling-place of God's spirit.

And what chorale melody do the second sopranos sing in Ex. 3-18? None other than “Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott” (“We all believe in one God”), the tune to which, from the time of the very earliest Lutheran hymnbooks, Luther's translation of the Nicene creed was sung. The whole first verse of the Lutheran creed passes in review, enshrined in an oratorio given its first performance before an audience largely made up of Catholics, to consecrate an ideal of national religious union. There could be no greater testimony to the link that German romanticism had forged between language, folk, and “spirit” in the name of Nation. Through his ostensibly sacred work, Mendelssohn actually emerges as perhaps the nineteenth century's most important—and successful—civic musician.

Mendelssohn and Civic NationalismMendelssohn and Civic Nationalism

ex. 3-18 Felix Mendelssohn, Paulus, last part of no. 36, con molto di moto, mm. 122-49

He was duly recognized and rewarded as such, and given the opportunity to lead his soon-to-be-united nation to musical greatness. In 1833, after his first appearances as conductor at the Lower Rhine Music Festival (which did for Handel in Germany what Mendelssohn's 1829 Berlin Passion had already done for Bach), he was appointed music director of the Catholic city of Düsseldorf, a tenure that culminated in the first performance of Paulus. Next he was appointed chief conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus (Drapers’ Hall) orchestra concerts, which became, as a result of his appointment, the most prestigious music directorship in all of Protestant Germany. He held this post with great distinction for a dozen years, 1835–47, in the course of which he did more than any other single musician to reinvent not only German, but all of modern concert life in the form that we now know it.

Under Mendelssohn's directorship, subscription seasons were extended to increase the orchestra members’ pay and insure their exclusive loyalty, so that standards of performance could rise. “Serious” programming was introduced, with symphonies performed seriatim (that is, complete and without interpolations between the movements) and “classic” repertory, including Bach (an old Leipziger), maintained alongside performances of new works. An international roster of “name” soloists regularly appeared with the orchestra. Mendelssohn himself conducted not only choral works, the traditional job of the music director or Kapellmeister, but symphonies as well (formerly directed from his chair by the leader of the first violins, still known for this reason as the “concertmaster”). Mendelssohn also appeared regularly as concerto soloist, as chamber-music performer, and as organist in sacred concerts. As significant an event as his Berlin Bach and his Düsseldorf Handel premieres was Mendelssohn's Leipzig premiere of Schubert's “Great” C-major Symphony in 1839.

Mendelssohn and Civic Nationalism

fig. 3-5 The Leipzig Gewandhaus (Market Hall) as sketched by Mendelssohn.

From 1843, Mendelssohn added the role of director of the newly founded Leipzig Conservatory (soon regarded as Europe's finest training school for composers) to his civic duties. In the same year he was also made director of the Berlin Cathedral Choir and conductor of the symphonic subscription concerts of the Berlin Opera Orchestra. From around 1840 he was the uncrowned composer (and conductor) laureate of England, too, where his protégé Prince Franz Karl August Albert Emanuel of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819–61), a talented organist and composer, had, by marrying Queen Victoria, become the Prince Consort of the realm (known to his subjects as Prince Albert).

Mendelssohn's preeminence in England was cemented by his second oratorio, Elijah (Elias in German), completed ten years after Paulus and first performed (in English) at the 1846 Birmingham Festival, the grandest and most triumphal of British musical ceremonials, bloated up to gargantuan proportions in competition with the German festivals. The chorus numbered more than 300, the orchestra 130. (By then, though, the total personnel at the Lower Rhine Festival numbered 631; henceforth, when it came to nationalism, Germany would never be outdone.) As obviously Handelian as Paulus was Bachian, the chorale-less Elijah remained, alongside Handel's Messiah, an invariable British festival item, performed as an annual national sacrament to the end of the Victorian era.

Another sidelight on Mendelssohn's status as pan-German and pan-Protestant culture hero, and the status of his musical idiom as the lingua franca of German liberal nationalism, is the way his musical style was appropriated by so-called Reformed Judaism. This was a modernizing movement that arose around 1825 within the German Jewish community in response to civil emancipation. It surprised and to a degree displeased the gentile establishment that had predicted wholesale conversion and assimilation—in effect, the disappearance of urban Jewry—to follow upon the granting of civil rights. Instead, many German Jewish congregations began aping the outward forms of Protestant worship—the structuring of the service around a German-language sermon; the use of music in a contemporary style, performed by choirs and organs; sometimes even the adoption of Sunday rather than Saturday as the Sabbath—but without renouncing the actual Jewish liturgy.

The earliest musical luminary of Reformed Judaism was the Vienna cantor Solomon Sulzer (1804–90), who commissioned from his friend Schubert, in the last summer of the latter's life, a choral setting in Hebrew of Psalm 92 (Tov l'hodos, “It is good to give thanks”). The greatest choirmaster-composer for the reformed synagogue was Louis Lewandowski (1821–94), who came to Berlin from the Polish-speaking part of East Prussia at the age of twelve, became the protégé of the banker Arnold Mendelssohn (the composer's cousin), and was sent, the first Jewish pupil ever, to study composition at the Berlin Academy of Arts, from which he graduated with honors, having composed and conducted a symphony, the traditional Habilitationsstück or graduation piece.

Lewandowski's collected liturgical works, issued in three volumes between 1871 and 1882, enshrine Mendelssohn's elegantly polished yet volkstümlich choral style as a sort of homage to the liberal spirit of emancipation and reform at a time when, as we will shortly see, the tenor of music, of politics, and of musical politics were all turning against Mendelssohn and liberalism alike (Ex. 3-19).

Mendelssohn and Civic NationalismMendelssohn and Civic Nationalism

ex. 3-19 Louis Lewandowski, Ma towu oholecho Jaakow (“How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob”), opening psalm for sabbath morning service (Todah w'simrah, I, no. 1)

But perhaps the best measure of Mendelssohn's public stature during the last decade of his life was the unanimous homage rendered him in the Leipzig press, at once the most influential and the most factionalized music press in Germany, if not all of Europe. Writing in the old and respectable Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (“Universal musical times”), the editor, Carl Ferdinand Becker, declared in 1842 that Mendelssohn's works and deeds could be “only contemplated, never criticized.” Mendelssohn's fellow composer Robert Schumann, writing in the “opposition” paper Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (“New journal for music”) of which he was the founding editor, as early as 1840 dubbed Mendelssohn “the Mozart of the nineteenth century.” Mendelssohn's only serious career disappointment, after the cancellation of the Augsburg Reformation Festival, was his failure in 1832 to be elected director of the Berlin Singakademie to replace his teacher Zelter. (A decade later the post, like any post in Germany, would surely have been his for the asking.) But he paid the price of his success: he died of apparent overwork, following a series of strokes, in the fall of 1847, aged thirty-eight. A large statuary monument to him was erected outside the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Until its dismantling by the Nazi government in 1937, it was one of two major musical memorials in the city, the other being the monument to Bach in front of the St. Thomas Church.


(21) Ernst Moritz Arndt, Von dem Worte und dem Kirchenliede (Bonn, 1819), p. 23.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 17 Sep. 2014. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 17 Sep. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 17 Sep. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003011.xml