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Article Felix Mendelssohn: Sacred Works

Image: Mendelssohn's Jubilate Deo
First page of Mendelssohn's Jubilate Deo from the Moldenhauer Archive (1847). Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Sacred music retained a position of major significance throughout Felix Mendelssohn's career as a composer, beginning with sacred choral songs performed at the Berlin Singakademie in 1821 and concluding with the Three Motets, op. 69, completed in the summer of 1847. Intended for both church and concert hall, his sacred works in particular have spawned divergent threads of discussion including the detection of underlying Jewish influences in the music or text selection or evaluating the composer's success in integrating a musical composition with autonomous artistic claims into a functional liturgical work. Polemics aside, during his lifetime Felix was undoubtedly a highly acclaimed composer of sacred music and his accomplishments in this genre are extraordinary: two completed oratorios of lasting popularity, over two dozen large sacred works, psalm settings and cantatas, and as many shorter pieces including motets and anthems. Notably, this oeuvre shows a remarkable flexibility as he produced settings of Latin texts from the Roman Catholic liturgy, German settings suitable for use in Lutheran Germany, and English canticle settings written specifically for Anglican Evensong. Transparent in his sacred works is a veneration of J.S. Bach, especially of his chorale cantatas and Passion, as well as a powerful debt to G.F. Handel's oratorios and anthems.

There are three sacred music manuscripts in Mendelssohn's hand which are held in the collections of the Library of Congress's Music Division:

1. Psalm 95, Kommet herzu Lasst uns mit Danken, op. 46, no. 2, for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra; an incomplete manuscript located in the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation Collection;

2. Elijah: "Introduction" and "Overture," arranged by the composer for piano duet (found in The Moldenhauer Archives - The Rosaleen Moldenhauer Memorial, American Memory);

3. Three Motets, op. 69, a complete manuscript with many corrections and a passage omitted from the published editions.

The manuscript for the op. 69 Motets is of special interest as these settings comprise Mendelssohn's last completed choral works. They include two Evensong canticles, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, and a setting of the 100th Psalm, Jubilate Deo, for the morning service; all were intended for use in Anglican services. The Jubilate Deo for four-part chorus and organ was originally requested by his publisher, Edward Buxton, in January of 1847 and was finished in haste before Felix arrived in London on April 8. The remaining two Evensong canticles are said to be the only works composed in June 1847, a time Felix spent in isolation with his family as they grieved the sudden loss of their sister Fanny that May. By July, Felix dispatched the manuscript along with a letter of instructions to Buxton, manager of the Ewer & Co. publishing firm in London. That letter, dated July 7, 1847 and excerpted below, is part of the Library of Congress's Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation Collection.

"My dear Sir, I send here the piece which I brought already to England for you and was prevented from looking over and finishing during that hurried but very pleasant stay in your Country. It completes the morning Service of which you published the first piece. I also send two new pieces forming the whole of an Evening Service, which are perhaps a little longer and more developed than usual in your Cathedral style; yet I hope they might be used, and I found much pleasure in occupying myself with them. You told me you wanted to have something of my manuscripts, and so I send this as I wrote it; but as there are several passages which might not be quite clear to the Engraver, it is quite necessary that you should send me the proofs of all the three pieces before they are published. This is also necessary because I beg you will submit the wording of them to Mr. Bartholomew.... If he finds passages where the English accent is wrong I beg he will alter them, but before these alterations are published I should like to know them..."

Ewer's London edition of the op. 69 Motets appeared in late 1847 and included an organ part and English texts; the first German edition introduced by Breitkopf & Härtel the following year as Drei Motetten featured both German and English texts, deleted the organ accompaniment altogether, and instigated a host of significant changes in both the overall order and musical content.

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  • Felix Mendelssohn: Sacred Works


  • -  Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Felix -- 1809-1847 -- -- composer
  • -  Articles
  • -  Songs and Music


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