Verleih uns Frieden – Felix Mendelssohn
I sometimes find it strange that I ended up studying and making a career out of classical music. I’ve always been more interested in new things than old, never been a huge history buff, and grew up with more interest in Larry Bird than William Byrd. Nonetheless, I somehow ended up studying this extremely nostalgic artform.
Felix Mendelssohn was the classic child prodigy. He was performing publicly by the age of nine, had his first composition published by the age of 13, and had written 12 string symphonies by his 14th birthday. Scholars contend that his period of “compositionally mature” works began at the age of 16. Clearly, Mendelssohn was a nostalgic and studious sort of youth – at 20, he led a revival of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Yes. That Bach. It’s a bit hard to imagine that Bach, this monolith of music, could be lost to history, but after the composer’s death in 1750, his music fell into general obscurity until this festival championed by the young Mendelssohn, where the Bach St. Matthew’s Passion was performed for the first time since the composer’s death. Mendelssohn would go on to incorporate many of Bach’s compositional techniques into his own works throughout his career.
It’s easy to be nostalgic right now. We look back to the last time that we shook hands, hugged loved ones, shared food with friends, and we imagine a grand future where we will get to experience those things again. In this way, in looking backwards, we also look forward, dreaming of a future where that familiar past becomes the present once more. Anything to escape this present we are living. It’s always been a challenge for me to find a healthy balance between these three places, but I think this piece of music gives some insight into how we can navigate our relationship with the past, present, and future in a healthy way. The translation of these lyrics, written by Martin Luther, give us a good start:
Mercifully grant us peace,
Lord God, in our time.
There is none other
Who can contend for us
But you alone, our God.
Especially now, as our present is strange and scary, it’s easy to look to the past or the future for escape, rather than edification. Yet, as Luther states, “grant us peace, Lord God, in our time.” That line strikes me, because the substitution of “the past” or “the future” in that sentence just doesn’t make sense. The past has its place in our Christian walk – by looking backwards we learn how the saints and prophets lived and see examples of strength and weakness in different trials. Looking forward also has its place, as our promised future of the life to come gives us hope – but neither of these mean anything unless we live out the truths they offer in the present! Therefore, look behind, look ahead, but use that perspective to live in this moment. God contends for you now as always, trust in Him, and he will grant you peace.
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow,
for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.
Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”