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Mendelssohn's Hear My Prayer


themythes
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The BBC, it appears, have launched another of their mass performing campaigns, this time with Mendelssohn's O for the wings of a dove. I realise that this is not strictly speaking an organ topic but very few of us have not come across the piece in some capacity or other, indeed I have told the story elsewhere on this forum in another topic of my own participation in a performance which rose a semitone in the second half despite being accompanied; quite an achievement, I think you would agree.

 

My reason for beginning this topic is that I recalled discovering a facsimile of the opening page, presumably in Mendelssohn’s handwriting in the Larousse Encyclopedia of Music edited by Geoffrey Hindley and published in 1971; at least my edition was. What is reproduced on page 277 is said to be Mendelssohn’s autograph manuscript; there are several departures from that with which we are now familiar, and that’s just the first page. It is a well known fact that Mendelssohn revised his work several times; Novello have published fascinating early versions of the organ sonatas. There is thus a strong suggestion that there may well be an substantially different, earlier version of Hear My Prayer knocking around somewhere. Does anyone have any knowledge of this and if so, how can one get hold of it?

 

Meanwhile, I have sent an enquiry and await a possible reply from the BBC!

 

David Harrison

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Fascinating. I would be most interested to learn anything you discover about this.

 

While we are at it, can anyone elucidate the wider history of this piece? What is the relationship between the German (Hör mein Bitten) and English versions? Was Mendelssohn responible for both and which came first? Was the organ accompaniment arranged from the orchestral score or vice versa?

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I'm curious: did this original have German or English text? I've read that Mendelssohn originally set the work in German (which in itself sheds a new light on the music) and recently I conducted a performance in Kendal using the orchestrated version...

 

The piece certainly has a number of different permutations!

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I'd always assumed the German was the original - as you would - though given Mendelssohn's popularity in England I wouldn't have put money on it. I wish I was fluent in German as I always wonder whether the "Oh for the wings of a dove" section has a different nuance in the original. The text runs "O könnt' ich fliegen wie Tauben dahin", so the stress seems to fall more on the concept of flight, rather than the dove of peace which is the established English reception, but, like I said, I'm illiterate so probably wrong. At any rate, the cuddly, sentimental, English interpretation has always seemed to me at odds with what the psalmist was really trying to convey.

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Further to my initial posting about the “original” version of ‘Hear My Prayer’:

 

The internet has been mildly helpful, though not, so far, in respect of casting any light upon the Larousse fac-simile. It looks as though the English words by W. Bartholomew came first and the German was a translation of these. The orchestral version throws up the most interesting point so far - it was made by Mendelssohn just before he died, in 1847, for Joseph Robinson, an Irish baritone; the piece is invariably sung by a treble or soprano voice but apparently Mendelssohn thought of it as interchangeable with a broken voice. Why not? It may be a partial answer to Vox’s point about the mood of Psalm 55. Has anyone heard it this way?

 

The plot thickens!

 

David Harrison

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The "milestones" of "Hear my prayer" in brief, quoted from the Carus Edition:

 

10 Nov 1843 lyrics sent to FMB by William Bartholomew, wishing to perform that piece in Crosby Hall

13 Dec 1843 FMB asks his english editor Buxton to thank Bartholomew, announces completion for beginning of 1844

25 Jan 1844 piece completed and sent to Buxton

31 Jan 1844 second copy with alterations and Bartholomews lyrics completed and sent to Bartholomew

End of 1844 FMB considers publication of the piece and offers a german version to Bote & Bock editors

August 1846 FMB rehearsing "Elias" in London, meets Jospeh Robinson, JR asks for instrumentation of "Hear my prayer"

14 Feb 1847 FMB sends complete score to Buxton.

 

Original score of 25 Jan 1944 seems to be entitled "Hör mein Rufen" instead of "Hör mein Bitten". German translation is supposed to be made by FMB himself.

 

So, this foreword is not really clear at the important point, but apparently the piece was WRITTEN in German first, but based on the English words of the commissioner.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I've only ever conducted this with the soloist and choir singing the German text. It has the benefit of removing the phrase about the godless. I'm intrigued by what the trebles in my choir will sing without batting an eyelid or what triggers the puerile humour that some of them can't restrain from time to time.

 

For those that are interested and might not count German as a language, here is a fairly literal translation, the aim having been to keep each English words as close as possible to the position of the word being translated. When the corrections start flooding in, I'll see how thick my skin is!

 

Hör mein Bitten, Herr, neige dich zu mir,

Hear my prayer, Lord, incline yourself to me.

 

auf deines Kindes Stimme habe Acht!

To the voice of your child be attentive.

 

Ich bin allein: wer wird mir Tröster und Helfer Sein?

I'm alone. Who will be my comforter and helper?

 

Ich irre ohne Pfad in dunkler Nacht!

I'm lost, without a path in the dark night.

 

Die Feinde sei droh'n und heben ihr Haupt:

The enemy are threatening and lift up their voices:

 

„Wo ist nun der Retter, an den ihr geglaubt?“

"Now where is the Saviour in whom you believe?"

 

Sie lästern dich täglich, sie stellen uns nach,

The blaspheme you daily; they persecute us

 

und halten die Frommen

and keep the pious

 

In Knechtschaft und Schmach.

in slavery and shame.

 

Mich fasst des Todes Furcht bei ihrem Dräu'n!

I'm frightened to death because of their posturing.

 

sie sind unzählige, ich bin allein;

They are numberless; I'm alone.

 

mit meiner Kraft kann ich nicht widersteh'n;

With all my strength I am unable to resist.

 

Herr, kämpfe du für mich,

Lord, fight for me:

 

Gott, hör' mein Fleh'n!

God, hear my plea!

 

O könnt ich fliegen wie Tauben dahin,

If only I could fly away like a dove,

 

weit hinweg vor dem Feinde zu flieh'n!

flee a long way away from the enemy!

 

In die Wüste eilt' ich dann fort,

Then I would hurry into the wilderness

 

fände Ruhe am schattigen Ort.

and find rest in a shady spot.

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This is all most interesting (to me, anyway). So the text began life in English. Felix received it and turned it into German, being careful to maintain the same syllabification and accentuation. The German and English version of the anthem appeared within a week of each other (the German first). Despite the fact that there are some alterations in the English version, this does look very much as if Felix intended from the outset that the work should appear in both languages.

 

I'd not clocked on to the fact that the orchestral version was for a baritone soloist. How excellent! I recently did this as a guest conductor with a local choir and put a lot of work into getting them away from the Master Ernest Lough image of the dove. I do hope they invite me to do it again - just so that I can use a baritone!

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