As is traditional by now, the thirty-first series of events of the Zemplén Festival will start with a concert by Budafok Dohnányi Orchestra. To be performed are the works of two anniversary composers, whose works themselves were originally composed for an anniversary, respectively.
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy died 175 years ago, in the 38th year of his life. He was not yet 21 years old when, in December 1829, he began to think about writing what he called a church symphony for the 300th anniversary of Protestantism.
This anniversary was the jubilee of the Confessio Augustana, or the Augustan Confession, the most important collection of Protestant doctrines signed at the Imperial Diet (Assembly) of Augsburg and officially presented and read out on 25 June 1530. The Augustan Confession was composed and written on the basis of Luther’s dogmas and the guidelines of other Saxon theologians by Melanchton and approved by Luther.
Mendelssohn had not actually been commissioned to write such a celebratory work, but he chose this way to prove his inner, personal dedication. He had intended to have it ready by January 1830, but his poor health prevented him from doing so; and to top it all, he also contracted measles from his sister. So not only was the score not ready in January, but he was unable to make the four-month tour with the symphony that he had planned to start in March. The work was finally completed in May, presumably too late to be appreciated and accepted by the Augsburg Committee organising the anniversary celebrations. So instead of Mendelssohn’s symphony, Eduard Grell’s austere piece for male choir was performed on 25 June 1830. Mendelssohn was not to enjoy the success of this work later either, as in 1832 an orchestra in Paris refused to perform it, while the London performance was cancelled by himself. On his return to Berlin he revised it, and only then was it performed for the first time. In 1838, however, he looked back at it as a ‘youthful composition’ and never had it performed again. It was not played again until 1868, more than 20 years after his death.
Mendelssohn wrote “D major” on the original score of the “Reformation” symphony, but he composed only the introduction in this key, and the main theme of the first movement is already in D minor. Later, on at least one occasion, the composer himself referred to his symphony as D minor, which he wrote as his second but listed as No.5.
The reason for the D major / D minor dilemma arising is probably to be found in the first movement: at the end of the introduction that lasts just over three minutes, the so-called “Dresden Amen” is played, a tone sequence composed by J.G. Neumann in the 18th century for use in the royal chapel in Dresden, but which quickly became popular in both Catholic and Lutheran services in Saxony. The Dresden Amen is a gradually ascending six-note melody, in which the transition from major to minor is created by the final note, thus achieving the impressive musical effect worthy of an ‘Amen’.
The very beginning of the work is of musical historical significance: Mendelssohn’s use of the motif melody from the 4th movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony is a reference to Gregorian chant and Catholicism. It is no coincidence that these harmonies also bring Palestrina to mind, however, Mendelssohn culminates this brief historical introduction with the “Dresden Amen”, which is played twice after the fanfares, and from there he continues with the majestic melody in D minor.
The other significant musical reference in the work is the leitmotif of the 4th movement: the chorale melody “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” / “A mighty fortress is our God”, composed by Martin Luther, which is first played on the flute and then taken up and elaborately unfolded by the other instruments.
After the intermission, the emblematic composition of Zoltán Kodály, born 140 years ago, will be performed. Psalmus Hungaricus was written in November 1923 for the 50th anniversary of the unification of Pest, Buda and Óbuda (to become what is known as the city of Budapest today – the tr.). We are barely three years after the Treaty of Trianon (prepared at the Paris Peace Conference in 1920, the treaty ended the 1st world war officially and brought about massive territorial and population losses for Hungary – the tr.), yet somehow we are trying to celebrate the creation of the capital through the unification of the three cities.
The international success of his composition meant a comeback in Kodály’s personal life, as he had taken part in the work of the music directorate during the Republic of Councils (in 1919 – the tr.), for which he was disciplined after the fall of the communist party, forbidden to teach for years and forced to remain silent.
Psalmus Hungaricus is a musical dramatisation of the 16th century text of Psalm 55 in the Book of Psalms, translated by Mihály Vég of Kecskemét.
You can read a detailed description of this work by Gábor Hollerung here: https://hollerung.hu/the-answered-question/
During the intermission there will be a wine tasting session by Grand Tokaj Zrt., the Official Wine Supplier of the Zemplén Festival.