Dayton Philharmonic explores Mendelssohn & The Reformation’s religious overtones

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra; photo: DPAA

By Gary Spencer

European classical music has a storied history of being intertwined with God, the church, and religious faith in general. There were many reasons for this – many composers were well known for being devout men of faith, while others might have felt a sense of obligation to compose religious themed music as the church often commissioned or funded the writing and performance of classical music centuries ago. Either way, religion and the church historically go hand in hand with classical music as we know it today.

“Western classical music grew out of the musical traditions of the Catholic Church and later, the Protestant Church,” explains Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra Artistic Director and Conductor Neal Gittleman. “As a result, sacred music is an important part of the classical music tradition.”

Speaking of the Protestant church, one major instance where a religious happening affected classical music ocurred during what is known as the Protestant Reformation, a 16th century movement in Europe dedicated to the change of practices and beliefs wielded by the then unshakeable Roman Catholic Church – including the concept that absolution of sin could be bought with money. Many historians believe that this movement began in earnest in 1517 when German professor and theologist Martin Luther posted his now legendary “95 Theses” on a church door in Wittenberg that served as an open invitation for debate of such indulgences. Not only did the Reformation have a profound influence on the diversity of Christian practice in the years following the movement, but it also affected many other aspects of culture, including western classical music. In celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s composition of the 95 Theses that set off the Protestant Reformation, this weekend the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra presents Mendelssohn & The Reformation, a unique program of music inspired by Luther’s movement and the reformation of the church in Europe during the 1600s.

“It’s a musical issue because music was one of the important factors in Luther’s movement,” Gittleman adds. “He is generally believed to have written the famous tune ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’, which some people consider a kind of national anthem for the Reformation. The most important thing about that hymn was that it was in German, as one of the things that reformers were looking for was prayer in the vernacular language as opposed to Latin.”

The songs selected for this program center on two compositions by 19th century composer Felix Mendelssohn, a man often noted for Lutheran leanings and inspiration. Mendelssohn was baptized in the Reformed Christian tradition at the age of seven, and went on to become a musical prodigy in what is known as the early Romantic period of music in the 1800s. The two compositions to be performed by the DPO include one of his most famous pieces, Symphony No. 5, also referred to as the “Reformation Symphony” due to its musical tip of the hat to Luther’s “A Might Fortress is Our God” hymn, as well as the “Capriccio Brilliant.” Also on the bill are J.S. Bach’s “Cantata No. 80” and Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy,” with the latter tune to feature several lead vocal soloists as well as the DPO Chorus.

“Johann Sebastian Bach was an important musical figure in the Reformation – he composed literally hundreds of church cantatas that constituted the core musical repertoire of the German Lutheran church,” Gittleman says. “When we decided to add a piano soloist to this program, the Beethoven “Choral Fantasy” was a no-brainer. After all, we already had the chorus and soloists for the Bach Cantata, and the Fantasy is a fabulous piece.”

The featured solo pianist that Gittleman is referring to is Canadian-born musician and professor Angela Cheng to add an extra spark to the already bubbling over number of musicians and soloists on hand for Mendelssohn and the Reformation. Having performed all over the US and internationally, this will be Cheng’s debut performance with the DPO and she couldn’t be more excited to be performing with the orchestra for the “Choral Fantasy” and “Capriccio Brilliant.”

“These works aren’t performed in concert very often, which is a shame because they both showcase and highlight the piano beautifully,” Cheng says. “I’m sure the audience will be delighted to hear these great masterpieces.

And to top it all off, there will be a pre-show “Take Note” talk given by long-time Lutheran pastor Larry Hoffsis an hour prior to the concert where he will give an in-depth analysis of the Protestant Reformation and its significance liturgically, historically, and musically speaking. However, to anyone who may be feeling a bit skittish about a symphonic concert centered on music inspired by the church or Christian faith, Gittleman says that while it plays an important part in the music, ultimately Mendelssohn & the Reformation is all about the great music that this 16th century movement helped give birth to.

“We play sacred music fairly regularly, but never with the intent of preaching – it’s about the music, not the religious content,” he says. “The Reformation Symphony is the one big Mendelssohn symphony that I’ve never conducted, and it’s been in my long-term programming plans ever since.”

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Mendelssohn & the Reformation” takes place this Friday, Oct. 13 and Saturday, Oct. 14 at the Benjamin & Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center, 1 West Second Street in downtown Dayton. The pre-concert “Take Note” talk begins at 7 p.m., music begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15-64 in advance. 

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Gary Spencer is a graduate of Miami University and works in the performing arts, and believes that music is the best. Contact him at

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