“Reformation” Symphony

“Reformation” Symphony

The “Reformation” is one of Mendelssohn’s most programmatic works. As befits its title, the symphony’s first and last movements each contain elements of religious struggle and triumph. Though catalogued as Mendelssohn’s fifth symphony, it is actually his second “full” symphony, written in 1829-30, just three years after Beethoven’s death.

He originally composed his “church symphony” to be played at the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 (which defined the doctrines of the Lutheran Church). For various reasons, however, his new symphony was not chosen for that occasion. Mendelssohn then sought out other venues for it to be performed, and it was eventually performed in Berlin and played at a rehearsal in Paris. Unfortunately, it was not favorably received by critics or musicians, even after Mendelssohn made revisions to it in 1832. He finally “shelved” the symphony for the remainder of his life, refusing to let others see it, and even contemplated destroying it. The symphony was finally published in 1868, over 20 years after his untimely death. Since four other Mendelssohn symphonies had already been published, this one was presented as his “Fifth” Symphony. Since then, it has made its way into the standard symphonic repertoire, albeit in Mendelssohn’s “revised” 1832 version. The version we’re performing today is the original 1829 version, which notably includes a rarely-performed Recitative movement before the Finale.

While written in Mendelssohn’s unique style, the “Reformation” contains references to other composers, including Mozart (opening theme based on four-note “Jupiter Symphony” theme); Bach (fugal and counterpoint sections in the fourth movement); and most interestingly, Beethoven – in the choice of key (D minor/Major), the use of a recitative before the last movement, and a last movement based on a hymn or song (all possibly hearkening back to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony).

The first movement opens in an “antique” polyphonic style reminiscent of Catholic Church ceremony, interrupted increasingly by strident brasses and woodwinds (possibly showing the Catholic order being challenged by the new Protestant movement). At the end of the opening Andante, Mendelssohn has the strings softly playing the “Dresden Amen” — a rising six-note theme. The fiery Allegro which follows is full of musical struggle and combat, with violent string passages met with wind outbursts based on a two-note theme (also derived from the “Dresden Amen”). The second movement is a carefree scherzo, with a singing trio section featuring oboes and strings. The intense third movement is an orchestral “song without words” featuring strings, oboes and bassoons, in turns introspective and impassioned. The Recitative, prominently featuring a solo flute and wind choirs, follows without a break. It leads directly into the choral finale based on the Lutheran hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A mighty fortress is our God). The opening chorale is introduced by solo flute and woodwind choir. Mendelssohn develops the movement into increasingly faster variations, complete with Bachian counterpoint in the strings. He overlays passages from the chorale in the middle of the movement, and uses it again in the coda as an exclamation point to end the symphony in dramatic fashion.

Symphony No. 31 in D Major

Symphony No. 31 in D Major

After an early career as a child prodigy, the 22-year old Mozart traveled to Paris in 1778 seeking his musical fortune. While his job search was ultimately unsuccessful, he did compose a number of works that have come down to us, particularly his splendid 31st Symphony, the “Paris.”

This work was commissioned by the Concert Spirituel, the foremost performing organization in Paris, founded in 1725, during the reign of Louis XV. This was a great opportunity for the young composer. It gave him the chance to write a work for the largest orchestral forces he had encountered to date — a full complement of winds (including clarinets), brass, timpani and strings. Mozart was very much aware of the contemporary French taste in music and wrote his new symphony to meet the expectations of his audience.

It has just three movements (Allegro assai, Andante, Allegro); unlike German works, it did not include a minuet. Most striking, he incorporated the Parisian taste of starting a symphony with a “coup d’archet,” a rising passage played in unison by the entire orchestra. Not only did he start the symphony with it — he made it a recurring theme in the first movement! He also used this technique in the opening of the last movement.

Of note, Mozart composed two versions of the Andante middle movement. We are performing the version which is presumed to be the final one — a lyrical rondo-like movement in 6/8 time.

Symphony No. 5 in F Major

Symphony No. 5 in F Major

A sunny, exciting and powerful masterpiece, this symphony is dedicated to the great Hans von Bülow in gratitude for that conductor’s championing of Dvořák’s orchestral works. Dvořák composed this symphony in just six weeks in 1875, at a fairly early stage in his musical life.

He had just applied for and received an Austrian Empire state grant; members of the judging committee awarding him the grant included his later mentor Johannes Brahms and the famed music critic Eduard Hanslick. Energized by the recognition, Dvořák embarked on a frenzy of composition, including a number of well-known chamber works as well as this symphony.

Although composed in 1875, it was only premiered in 1879 and published considerably later (1888), with a high opus number chosen by his music publisher. That said, this masterful symphony bears all of Dvořák’s hallmarks — rich lyricism, lush melodies, masterful development. The opening Allegro ma non troppo opens with a cheerful pastoral clarinet theme, taken up by winds and strings in turn; it is complemented by an introspective second theme introduced by the violins and oboe.

The slow second movement is soulful with a hint of melancholy, with sudden powerful outbursts from massed strings, winds and brass.

The lively third movement follows with almost no break. At first keeping the same mood of the slow movement, it transitions abruptly to a cheerful folk-like tune, with a lilting trio. The dramatic last movement opens with a powerful eruption from the lower strings, picked up in turn by winds and brass. Its harmonic tension is most unusual. It open in the key of A minor, and stays there for over 50 measures until the main theme makes its emphatic appearance in the main key of F major. A soaring second theme is introduced by the clarinet and second violin; both themes are developed extensively. The first movement theme reappears at the end, first in the high winds and horn, then stirringly in the trombone, before the symphony draws to its triumphant close.

Symphony No. 3 in F Major

Symphony No. 3 in F Major

Johannes Brahms wrote his Symphony No. 3 in F Major in 1883 at the age of 50. It is the shortest of his four symphonies, written six years after his Second Symphony, in D Major. During this period Brahms was anything but idle; in fact, these six years were some of the most prolific years in symphonic composition of his life. Masterworks like his Academic Festival Overture, Tragic Overture, Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Violin Concerto were all created in between his two middle symphonies.

Brahms’ orchestral forces for his symphonies are actually quite modest in comparison to the ones that are used in other romantic compositions from this period. In this F Major symphony, he uses 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and 1 contrabassoon for the woodwind section. Besides the usual string section, the brass and percussion have 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones and timpani, and are used rather sparingly throughout the entire work.

Many people consider this symphony to be rather “pastoral,” given the key for the work and the two lovely and lyrical center movements; yet the outer movements provide insights that the symphony is anything but “tranquil.” The symphony’s first movement, for instance, is well known for its rhythmic juxtapositions. Written in 6/4, it is filled with syncopations, hemiolas and strong accents, which purposefully and successfully blur the bar lines and create illusions to the regular meter, leaving listeners with a sense of instability. At the same time, the key of the first movement constantly straddles between F Major and f minor. Both conflicts in rhythm and tonality don’t seem to settle until the end of the movement.

On the other hand, even though the last movement is seemingly more stable rhythmically, its tonality remains largely in f minor. Not until the last 43 bars of the work does it settle into the home key of F Major. Regardless of how listeners may perceive the moods of the work, the one thing that will give us the feeling of completion is that the opening theme in the first movement, first in f minor, returns at the very end of the fourth movement in F Major.

Symphony No. 39 in G Major

Symphony No. 39 in G Major

Composed in 1768, this tempestuous minor-key work is the first of Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” symphonies. “Sturm und Drang” (literally “storm and stress”) was a pre-Romantic movement that arose in German literature and music in the mid-18th century. Characterized by emotional and individualistic expression, it was perceived as a reaction to the cool rationality of the Enlightment.

While most of Haydn’s other symphonies (104 in all) were written in major keys, many of his works between 1768 and 1797 were written in minor keys. This work is scored for strings, oboes and 4 horns, an unusual combination later imitated by others, including Mozart (in his “little” G minor Symphony No. 25).

The first movement of this piece is agitated and episodic, with sudden stops, starts and explosive contrasts, reinforced by the winds. The second movement is an elegant Andante, played by strings only. The third movement features a melodic trio, with soloistic writing for oboes and (especially) horns. The final Allegro molto features impassioned violin leaps, played against a furious inner-string accompaniment, and brings this symphony to a frenetic conclusion.


Symphony No. 7 in A Major

Symphony No. 7 in A Major

Driving rhythms characterize this joyous symphony, described by none other than Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance.” Premiered in Vienna 1813, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony received enthusiastic reviews, with the audience even demanding an encore of the second movement! Outside Vienna, reaction was not as favorable (the noted composer Carl Maria von Weber said that “Beethoven was ripe for the madhouse;” Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann’s father, called it “the work of a drunkard”). Little did they know; over time these critics were proved wrong, and this magnificent, powerful symphony has become one of Beethoven’s most enduring and well-loved works.

Each of its four movements is built around a specific rhythmic motif. After a contemplative introduction (almost a movement in itself), the opening Allegro’s three-note theme is introduced by the woodwinds, taken up by the strings in turn, and traded back and forth among strings, woodwinds and brass.


The famous second movement Allegretto is a somber march built around a five-note motif (long-short-short-long-long) starting in the lower strings, with a subtle singing countermelody taken up in turn by the rest of the orchestra. A lyrical interlude featuring clarinet and bassoon offers a warm ray of sunshine in the middle of the movement.

The third movement Presto is based on a relentless three-note motif, interspersed with a sonorous trio section featuring winds and brass. This combination is repeated several times (with surprise variations).

The energetic last movement has been described as “elemental fury unleashed.” It features driving 16th-note runs, offbeat accents, brass/wind fanfares and exclamation points, and a long coda culminating in a marking of “triple forte” (fff) — the first use of that marking in a Beethoven score. Accelerating driving passages bring this symphony to its triumphant conclusion.

Symphony No. 2 in D Major

Symphony No. 2 in D Major

The piece was written quite quickly during the summer of 1877. While Brahms had struggled for nearly two decades to complete his first symphony, his sunny, happy, second symphony was written within just a few months while he was on summer holiday in the quaint Austrian resort town of Pörtschach am Wörthersee.

The entire symphony is based upon a three-note motive first stated in the ‘cellos and basses in the very first bar of the piece (D-C#-D). You will hear this motive again and again throughout the entire work; it is almost like one of those “where’s Waldo?” puzzles. As you listen see if you can catch it in all of Brahms’ different settings, inversions, and changes of instrumentation.

The first movement captures the beauty of summer by the lake. After playing through the piece for the first time, one of Brahms’ colleagues wrote: “It is all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine, and cool green shadows. How beautiful it must be at Pörtschach.”

The second movement is a little darker and brooding in texture. It is thoughtful and reflective, and in the middle becomes more dramatic as it spins out the melody in triplets before returning to its opening theme. The third movement is light and has the character of a serenade. It is interrupted twice by an impatient musical motive that makes you want to tap your feet and dance a little.

The Finale is joyous and exciting. The ‘cello and bass parts are extremely difficult to play well (and tend to show up on all audition lists). The rich second melody makes us remember all those wonderful folk tunes that one often hears in the countryside. And, of course, if you listen carefully you will hear the first movement’s three-note motive moving in and out of the melodies. Brahms ends the piece triumphantly with a brilliant fanfare flourish of trumpets and horns.

—Diane Wittry

Video performance by the Symphonie Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Conducted by Mariss Jansons


Symphony No. 39 in Eb

Symphony No. 39 in Eb

This is first of Mozart’s last three symphonies, all of which he composed in 1788 in the miraculous span of just six weeks. Each of the three (No. 39 in E-Flat, No. 40 in G minor, and No. 41 in C Major) is a masterwork in its own right.

The E-flat Symphony is unique for its wind orchestration (one flute; clarinets instead of the usual oboes; bassoons; horns; trumpets), which gives it a mellow timbre and tone quality. It has a sunny character, full of optimism, stateliness and joy.

It opens with a grand adagio introduction, full of sweep and nobility. The following allegro has an 8-note theme interwoven among all sections of the orchestra. This theme becomes the basis for an impassioned development interspersed with violin scales.

Much of the second movement is based on a rising 4-note motif, to which are added impassioned violin outpourings and reflective wind choir passages. The Menuetto opens with a sweeping upward figure in the violins,interspersed with a graceful violin motif; the Trio has a folk-song Ländler quality, featuring clarinets, flutes, bassoons and horns.

The violins open the allegro Finale with a fast 8-bar melody, taken up in turn by the entire orchestra. After an entertaining development (with sudden forays into keys wildly unrelated to E-Flat!), a final recapitulation brings the symphony to an optimistic and dramatic close.

Symphony No. 8 in G Major

Symphony No. 8 in G Major

This symphony was composed by Dvorak in a short span of several months in 1889. A sunny, cheerful work, it alternates major and minor keys in each of its four movements.

Dvorak wrote this work in a new style, transitioning from traditional symphonic structure (exposition-development-recapitulation) towards a more poetic musical structure, stitching together many melodic and thematic fragments (particularly evident in the first movement).

The symphony opens with a wistful theme in G minor by ‘celli, clarinets, bassoon and horn. The violins lead an energetic transition to G Major; a clarinet theme in minor keys is interspersed several times in the movement, which ends on an optimistic note.

The second movement is more introspective. Beginning softly in the strings, upper winds join in to combine in a duet. Singing passages in C Major, first in the winds and then in the strings, lead to rousing climaxes featuring brass and timpani.

The third movement is a graceful waltz, bracketed by a folk-melody trio and a sudden vivace at the end. A rousing trumpet flourish starts off the last movement. A series of string variations feature ‘celli and violas, abruptly followed by a rousing orchestral Allegro. Midway through the movement, Dvorak gives the winds a contrasting restless theme in C minor. The “theme and variations” return in the strings and woodwinds; the main Allegro theme then reappears. Led by surging horns, trumpets and trombones, the symphony accelerates to a triumphant close.

      Dvorak Symphony No. 8 Mvmt. 1
      Dvorak Symphony No. 8 Mvmt. 2 - The Broadway Bach Ensemble
      Dvorak Symphony No. 8, Mvmt. 3 - The Broadway Bach Ensemble
      Dvorak Symphony No. 8 Mvmt. 4 - The Broadway Bach Ensemble