Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano


uncommon intelligence, imagination and textual awareness...



Motet Notes

Felix Mendelssohn  Psalm 95Kommt, laßt uns anbeten, Op. 46

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.

The setting of psalms inspired Mendelssohn throughout his compositional career resulting in a series of five Psalm Cantatas between 1830 and 1843. A hybrid of Bach cantata and Handel oratorio, these psalm settings established a genre of sacred music that became highly prized during the 19th century, although, regrettably, today they remain the least performed of Mendelssohn’s sacred music.

Psalm 95Kommt, laßt uns anbeten, Op. 46 received its premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in the winter of 1841. The psalm text presented Mendelssohn with a special challenge; its eleven verses divide into two uneven parts of strikingly different characters: celebratory and admonishing.  The first part (verses 1-7) is a joyous call to worship and praise. The second part (verses 7-11) is a stern warning not to disregard the voice of the Lord and thus, arouse his wrath.  Mendelssohn marks this textual division in two ways: 1) an orchestral transposition at the end of the fourth movement, and; 2) the use of major keys in the first half, minor in the second. 

Mendelssohn’s score serves as compendium of vocal compositional methods: responsorial singing (movements 1 & 4), imitative polyphony (all movements), canon (movement 2), accompanied recitative (movement 5), and fugue (movement 4). This is not just Mendelssohn flexing his considerable compositional muscles, but employing compositional techniques to characterize text. 

The piece begins with the tenor, the symbolic cantor, singing a falling theme that is then taken up and elaborated by the chorus, the symbolic congregation. Solo soprano heralds in the second movement with a dotted figure that forms the basis for the imitative polyphony to follow.  What appears to be a jubilant close of the chorus gives way to a two-part canon with chordal accompaniment in the strings. The turn to strict imitation reflects at once Mendelssohn’s abiding interest in learned counterpoint and the music of Bach, while the choice of canon (law) reflects the rule of the Lord.

A lyrical, intertwining duet for two sopranos leads us to a full choral fugue in the fourth movement supported by a pulsating eighth note accompaniment.  The tenor cantor re-introduces the theme and responsorial style of the first movement; the orchestra transitioning to G minor for the second part and stern character of the psalm text.

For the final movement, Mendelssohn, the inventive orchestrator, effects a burnished color of divided violas and bassoons at the octave to present the mournful melody the tenor will sing. The music intensifies at the direct words of the Lord as a dramatic accompanied recitative. At last, the full chorus enters with flowing triplets in the strings that climaxes with a series of fortissimo diminished seventh chords. After a final brief solo by the tenor, the work concludes with a hushed pianissimo.

~Larry Todd, with edits and additions by Ryan Turner