On Learning: A Musical Lesson from Mendelssohn

May 1, 1998

A favorite teaching piece of mine is Felix Mendelssohn's Lobgesang. It's sometimes called Symphony no. 2, but it's not really a symphony. The composer called it “symphony-cantata,” which describes it precisely.

The piece has to do with learning. Mendelssohn composed it in 1840 on commission for the city of Leipzig's celebration of the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg's invention of printing from moveable type. The central part of the work's text, taken from the Bible, is about the end of darkness and the coming of light.

More than any other of his works, Lobgesang reflects Mendelssohn's commitment to the ideal of Bildung, a German word that has no simple English translation, though one really wishes it did. The word Bildung incorporates the ideas of both cultural education and personal development. Mendelssohn learned a strong sense of the importance of Bildung from his family's tradition, especially the influences of his paternal grandfather, the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. He dedicated his career to the idea of Bildung in contemporary society more conscientiously than did his contemporary Romantics.

The imagery of the spread of light and understanding is everywhere in the music of the Lobgesang. The pivotal and most stirring moment comes between no. 6, a tenor solo that represents the terror of night and darkness, and no. 7, a magnificent choral fugue. At the junction of the two movements, the soprano solo has a single exposed line: “Night has departed!” The subsequent shift to D major and the repetition of her statement by the chorus provides one of my favorite “thrill” moments.

Combining dramatic symphonic development and the rhetoric of such Baroque structures as the chorale, chorale prelude, and fugue, the Lobgesang enacts several aspects of the breaking in of light. The opening motto, explored in purely orchestral terms through the three opening sub-movements, first appears in the trombones and is then taken up by the full orchestra, a syntactical image that recurs over and over throughout the symphony-cantata. The motto takes on semantic meaning when it first attains words as the chorus enters in no. 2, singing it to the text “All that has breath, praise the Lord!”

Mendelssohn's Lobgesang thus ties into history and the life and values of its composer, and it draws together musical genre imagery and musical structure to propose and develop musical meaning. So it makes a fine teaching example. Besides, it has plenty of striking and lovely music.

The Lobgesang also raises two ideas that can inspire and challenge us.

First, Mendelssohn, like his fellow Romantics, had a deep commitment to the belief that the greatest music should belong to everyone. (The activity of the composer-critics of the period, such as Berlioz and Schumann, also reflects this belief.)

This was really quite a new idea, one that belonged to post-revolutionary, idealistically democratic thinking. Such an ideal—that of Bildung and of the Lobgesang—depended on the breakdown of the old feudal society at the end of the eighteenth century. In the twentieth century, the ideal has become endangered by commercialism, cynicism, and a misplaced concept of democracy afraid to discriminate among values.

Certainly we need to expand our old values and learn new ones. The values of learning itself and of optimism, at least, we need to hang on to.

Second, the music of the Lobgesang does a wonderful thing by illustrating not only the spread of ideas from one person to many but also the enhancement of those ideas that results from that spread. The developments in the work always proceed from a simple to an elaborated and much richer statement.

Real learning is like this. The Lobgesang's opening motto is not just repeated at the beginning but harmonized and then later developed symphonically. Arrival of light does not just happen in a moment but inspires development as a fugue, a process that can only take place when multiple voices are engaged. The unaccompanied chorale in no. 8, “Nun danket alle Gott,” proceeds in its second stanza to an orchestrally enriched restatement. You will find other examples.

An idea that students sometimes find hard to assimilated and frustrated teachers sometimes forget is that students are supposed to exceed their teachers. Education is not a process by which those who know more are supposed to transmit part of what they know to those who inevitably know less. Rather, we who know a little are supposed to share that little with those who will know more and make more of it.

And all of us who learn must share our learning collaboratively. A solo voice does produce harmony and counterpoint, a fugue, or a symphonic development.

That, I suppose, is what the Lobgesang teaches most of all.

1961 Last modified on December 11, 2013
Login to post comments