Mendelssohn’s Symphony in D major, known as the ‘Reformation’ Symphony, was completed in 1830 for the 300th anniversary of the most important doctrinal document of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, the Augsburg Confession, presented to Emperor Charles V at the Augsburg Diet in 1530. The anniversary ceremonies were cancelled because of political tensions in Europe, and the premiere of the Symphony was postponed until 1832, at which time it was performed under the title ‘Symphony to celebrate the revolution of the church’. Mendelssohn later grew dissatisfied with the work, and it was not published until well after his death, in 1868. Although it was the second of his five numbered Symphonies to be completed, it was dubbed Symphony no. 5 because of its late publication.
Mendelssohn incorporated the idea of the Reformation into the work by using two Lutheran hymn tunes. The first movement contains two allusions to a tune that emerged in Saxony in the 18th century, known as the Dresdner Amen. Wagner also used this as the Grail motif in his opera Parsifal. The finale of the Symphony is built around the familiar hymn tune by Martin Luther, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. The work can be seen to trace a growth process from spiritual struggles in the first movement to confident faith in the finale.
The first movement opens with a devout introduction, concluding with the first statement of the Dresdner Amen on strings in pianissmo. The fast section emerges in a torrential minor key, and the more subdued second subject provides only a brief respite amidst the storm. The Dresdner Amen recurs at the end of the development.
The middle movements are lighter in conception: the second is a pastoral scherzo, and the third is a slow movement, a ‘song without words’ dominated by a melody on the first violins and concluding with a brief reference to the second subject of the first movement.
The finale follows without a break, beginning with a solemn chorale setting of Ein feste Burg for winds. The hymn tune also appears in the fast section alongside other materials, until at the very end the entire orchestra plays the tune in a broad, unwavering fortissimo.