Felix Mendelssohn was born into a Jewish family in the Hanseatic and musically-rich city of Hamburg in 1809. His father, a banker, renounced his Jewish faith and took the surname “Bartholdy,” later saying “There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucious.” Likely this decision was as much as social and political one as much as spiritual, for Felix was raised without religion until his baptism in the Reformed Church at age seven. Mendelssohn himself continued to use that surname, however, sometimes referring to himself as “Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy,” a name which one will still see on occasion.
Mendelssohn became known as a prolific and inspired composer of concertos, symphonies, chamber music, piano pieces, vocal works, and even oratorios and sacred music. The tune we associate with the text “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was taken from one of his oratorios (an oratorio being similar to an opera but with sacred themes.) Although of German background, Mendelssohn made ten trips to England in his lifetime, and his popularity in the English-speaking world only grew throughout the Victorian era, although he would die prematurely in 1847. His choral works, for example, were set to English texts as much as they were to German, such was his popularity in England. To Mendelssohn can also be credited the rediscovery of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose St Matthew Passion Mendelssohn conducted in 1829—the first time since the great composer’s death. Bach’s music had largely been forgotten, already being seen as outdated during Bach’s lifetime. But Mendelssohn succeeded in reviving Bach’s works—and he did so with one of the great sacred passions. In our modern secular age, historians and musicians happily forget that so much of the world’s music has been composed to God’s glory and for the purposes of His Church.
Today’s prelude is from one of Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas. Four out of the six sonatas utilize German chorale tunes, and Mendelssohn frequently employed Lutheran chorales in his choral works and even in his symphonies (consider the “Reformation” Symphony which so famously quotes “A Mighty Fortress.”) The sonata you will hear this morning utilizes Martin Luther’s hymn tune, “Aus Tiefer Noth,” or “Out of the Depths I Cry to Thee,” a setting of Psalm 130. The choir sings Mendelssohn’s sacred motet “Above All Praise and Majesty,” a traditional anthem for the Feast of the Ascension which was last Thursday. The communion voluntary is the final, quiet movement from Mendelssohn’s third sonata, the first part of which is played as the opening voluntary. The closing voluntary is another festive, triumphant organ piece of Mendelssohn.
The Church continues to give thanks for the sacred music of Bach, Mendelssohn, and the many composers whose faith permeated their lives and music.