Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano


uncommon intelligence, imagination and textual awareness...



Motet Notes

Felix Mendelssohn  Wie der Hirsch schreit ~ Psalm 42, op. 42

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was an enormously talented and versatile composer, conductor and performer. He was the grandson of the famous Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who strongly promoted Jewish assimilation into German culture and society. Mendelssohn’s father converted the family to the Lutheran faith when Felix was a young boy, adopting the additional surname Bartholdy, which was the name of a family estate.

Surprisingly little attention has been paid to Mendelssohn’s smaller sacred works, on texts associated with the Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran traditions. They include a series of choral cantatas, inspired equally by Mendelssohn’s admiration for the music of Bach (whose St Matthew Passion he famously revived in Berlin in 1829 at the age of 20!) and by his love of Martin Luther’s hymns. Over the course of his career, Mendelssohn devoted nineteen entire compositions to setting of psalm texts.  This is not surprising given the deeply personal nature of the psalm texts themselves, and that the psalms are the only biblical texts clearly conceived as musical compositions.

Mendelssohn [1809-1847] wrote his 42nd Psalm in the spring of 1837 while he and his bride Cécile were on their honeymoon near Freiburg. Usually a severe self-critic, Mendelssohn’s enthusiasm for this work was exceptional and long lasting.  In numerous correspondences with friends, his sister Fanny and publishers, he often described it as his “very best sacred composition.”  This assessment is all the more striking given that Psalm 42 was composed immediately on the heels of the oratorio St Paul.

The 42nd Psalm provides vivid visual and sensual imagery of the hart (stag or deer) and fresh water.  Yet the motivating force behind the psalm is not their presence, but their absence – an absence that represents separation from the presence of God as well as isolation.  At the outset the hart cries out for fresh water, but the water only comes in the form of tears, rushing waters, waterspouts and billows. 

The Psalm’s opening movement is a tapestry of rich invention. Though the character of the alto melody might lead one to expect fugal treatment, the motive begins a different melodic line in each voice. The resulting texture of overlapping vocal lines coalesces again and again in a chordal statement of the text. The next two movements are both arias for soprano -the first, slow and lyrical with a plangent oboe melody in counterpoint, the second lively, declamatory, and supported by a three-part women’s choir. The fanfare-like fourth movement for full choir (“Why so sorrowful, my soul?”), with its repeated cry “Harre auf Gott!” (“Wait for the Lord!”), anticipates the music of Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang Symphony.

The central movement, both musically and textually, is the Quintet, presenting the psychological distress in the solo soprano simultaneously with the reassuring triumphalism of the male solo quartet. Characterized by wide leaps and angular melodic lines, the soprano repeatedly exclaims, “My God, within me is my soul cast down, while the quartet steadfastly sings in mostly conjunct, diatonic, closely voiced harmonies. The centrality of this movement led to Mendelssohn’s assertion “if the Quintet doesn’t succeed, then the whole will not succeed.” The final movement draws upon virtuosic Handelian counterpoint that had recently found tremendous success in St. Paul.   

© Ryan Turner