The beginning of Mendelssohn’s “Lobgesang” symphony is completely inert, and therefore alarmingly dull, if I am permitted the oxymoron. As I’ve been studying this score recently for classroom presentation, I started from the assumption that the piece’s dullness was due to my own limited perception, probably related to the generic problems connected with this “symphony-cantata” as well as the stupefyingly poor text that Medelssohn employed in the work. Salvatore Cammarano’s book for Verdi’s Il Trovatore is a literary masterpiece compared to the shambles that Mendelssohn set in the cantata portion of his piece.
I adore Mendelssohn, and confess to being intimidated as well by the advocacy for this score by R. Larry Todd in his book on Mendelssohn that I’m using in the class. Todd is really careful to avoid personal enthusiasms and censures in his book, but the fact that he draws a structural diagram for “Lobgesang” and has several music examples constitutes advocacy. I also hope that I’m man enough to admit my limitations. But I think I’ve discovered something that lends credence to my negative assessment of the piece.
The first phrase of “Lobgesang” and the first phrase of Modest Mussorgsky’s (admittedly totally different and unrelated work conceptually and stylistically) Pictures at an Exhibition are similar. It’s not an uncanny similarity, but similar they are, and not because they share the same key signature and roughly the same thematic shape, which they do, but which is certainly coincidental, but similar in their rhetoric. Both are statement and response formulations, rather like a mass celebrant chanting something and being answered by a congregation. This is common in classical music. Brahms’ first piano sonata, Beethoven’s last symphony, Bach’s great mass, Rimsky’s Russian Easter Overture and most likely thousands of other works use this device. It is common, to say the very least. But Mendelssohn’s passage flops and Mussorgsky’s is immortal. Why?
It is because in Mendelssohn the responsorial harmonization of the original single note phrase merely confirms the harmonies that are obviously implied in the former. And then he adds new strophes to his passage, and each time the subsequent harmonization confirms the totally obvious. In Mussorsgsky, the harmonization, or at least the spacing is different each time, and even presents certain modal ambiguities; his opening promenade is definitely in B-flat, yes indeedy, but it is tinged by a lurking modal g minor, and sports as well the feeling of a premature move to the dominant, F major. If this seems technical, well, it is-but remember, music is a craft with its own procedural protocols. I can put it this way, non-technically: each time the listener hears the “celebrant” intone a phrase in Pictures, the listener is curious as to how the “responsorial” is formulated, and by the way, this interest does not diminish over repeated hearings. The “Promenade” is a unique thing. In Mendelssohn’s opening, you get exactly what is stongly implied each time. It’s boring the first time, and it approaches unendurable on subsequent listenings.
This should not sound immodest, because it is only basic musicianship, but I think I proved my contention in class yesterday. I improvised Mendessohnian sounding harmonizations of the responsorials at the piano , but used different spacings each time and employed proxy chords which were rational but less obvious then the chords in the actual piece. The passage was somewhat improved, but because I didn’t have an overarching conception of where I was going, it was still pretty bad. In other words, I improved the passage tactically but not strategically. If this seems like lese majestie, let me suggest that the alternative is that we all shut up, stop thinking and experimenting, and eat everything that is put on our plate. We shouldn’t eat everything that even a great master puts on our plate; we’ll get fat and complacent, and lose our powers of crititical discrimination. The Italian and Scottish symphonies are masterpieces, “Lobgesang is an also-ran, that’s the way it is, whether I am personally impertinent or not. I return to my profound rejection of the phrase, “You like it, I don’t, end of discussion” which an exceptionally intelligent friend of mine formulated during our conservatory days. We need standards and discrimination.
Finally, you may ask: “Isn’t repetition an often important unifying device, and therefore okey-dokey?” Oh my, yes. But repetition and redundancy are different things. If you don’t believe me, consult a reliable dictionary.