Elijah Op. 70 (1846)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Felix Mendelssohn was the grandson of a philosopher and son of a well-to-do banker. Although from a Jewish background, at age 7 Felix was baptised as a Christian with the surname “Bartholdy”. Despite his father’s wishes, he never used it. Though raised as a Lutheran, he was never fully accepted as one, nor did he totally recant his Judaic heritage. Like Mozart, he became a famous child prodigy, but matured earlier, composing numerous symphonies and perhaps his best work, the Octet for Strings, by his late teens. He had a prodigious memory, being able to play by heart all 9 of Beethoven’s symphonies while still a teenager.
At 20 Felix revived Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Berlin, reawakening interest in Bach’s sacred works, and launching his own parallel careers as eminent conductor and successful musical administrator. This was one of the first performances where the conductor became the authoritative director and interpreter of the music, and used a baton. Previously, this role had been performed by the various section leaders, or the keyboard player. Over the next few years Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatory and transformed the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra into the first “modern” professional orchestra.
Highly respected and popular during his lifetime, and not having to worry about money, Mendelssohn travelled widely. He performed all over Europe, and after his first visit at age 23, England became his second home. His first oratorio, Saint Paul, was performed at the Birmingham Festival in 1837.
About the same time, Mendelssohn sketched some ideas for Elijah. However, due to lack of a librettist, this project lapsed until, following the success of Saint Paul, Mendelssohn was approached to both organise the 1846 Birmingham Festival, and to compose and conduct a new oratorio for it. He persuaded a friend, Pastor Julius Schubring, to write the libretto. However, Schubring brought a moralistic theological view to the text that conflicted with Mendelssohn’s dramatic vision. In the end Mendelssohn prevailed, but wrote much of the libretto himself, initially in German to which the music was set. His friend William Bartholomew made the English translation subsequently used.
Although built on the structural foundations of Bach and Handel, Elijah’s dramatisation is almost operatic. Although Felix wrote the soprano role for the popular Jenny Lind, particularly the high F# in the aria Hear Ye Israel, she did not sing at the 1846 Birmingham premiere. The orchestra of 125 and 271-voice choir elicited a tumultuous response from the audience of 2000, eight pieces being encored.
The following year, Felix’s beloved sister Fanny died. Felix was devastated, and died 5 months later. Meanwhile, Elijah became hugely popular in England, and, after falling out of favour during the mid 20th century, today is second in popularity only to Handel’s Messiah.
Part I opens in dramatic fashion, not with the customary overture but with Elijah proclaiming a curse “There shall not be dew or rain” much as the prophet himself abruptly appeared to Ahab.
Mendelssohn was persuaded by Bartholomew to add the exciting overture that follows. Then the people plead for rain (“Help, Lord” and “Lord, bow Thine ear“) while Obadiah urges them to repent. An angel sends Elijah to the widow of Zarephath (“Elijah, get thee hence“). Elijah’s duet with the widow (“What have I to do with thee“) provides the first great dramatic moment, when Elijah prays to the Lord three times that her son might be restored to life. The magnificent chorus “Blessed are the men who fear Him” is one of Schubring’s interpolations into the story, but provides Mendelssohn with an opportunity for some wonderfully evocative writing. Elijah returns to face Ahab (“As God the Lord of Sabaoth“) and places his challenge to the priests of Baal. The priests invoke Baal (“Baal, we cry to thee“) while Elijah mocks them (“Call him louder“). This is the dramatic high point of the oratorio, with Elijah’s calm contrasting with the increasingly frenetic music of the chorus. Their invocation ends with a fortissimo “Hear and answer!“, which is followed by dead silence, surely one of the most dramatic and effective moments in oratorio. By contrast, Elijah then invokes the Lord with music of great nobility and simplicity (“Draw near, all ye people“). There is a brief interpolation by a quartet (“Cast thy burden upon the Lord“) before the fire comes down from heaven (“O Thou, who makest thine angels spirits“). Obadiah pleads with Elijah to send rain (“O man of God, help thy people“). Three times Elijah prays to the Lord for rain (“Thou hast overthrown thine enemies“) and sends a young boy to the top of a hill to look out over the sea for rain. At the third time the rain comes, and the people join in an exuberant hymn of praise (“Thanks be to God.”)
Part II begins with hymns of reassurance (“Hear ye, Israel!” and “Be not afraid“), but Elijah is soon embroiled in controversy again. He confronts Ahab, taking him to task for his idolatry (“The Lord hath exalted thee“) while Jezebel stirs up the people against Elijah (“Woe to him.”) Obadiah advises him to flee (“Man of God“) and Elijah, alone in the desert, is in despair (“It is enough.”) Angels come and comfort him (“Lift thine eyes” and “He, watching over Israel“) and Elijah makes his way to Mount Horeb to await the Lord. Here Mendelssohn again uses some vividly descriptive music depicting the fury of the wind, the earthquake and the fire, contrasting that with the simplicity to which he sets the text “and in that still voice, onward came the Lord.” There follows another hymn of praise (“Holy is God the Lord“) and a choral recitative (“Go, return upon thy way“) as Elijah is sent back to Israel refreshed in spirit (“For the mountains shall depart“). Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (“Then did Elijah“) followed by Schubring’s final interpolation, an invitation to come to the Lord (“O come, everyone that thirsteth“) and the final choral hymn of praise (“And then shall your light break forth“), ending the oratorio with a majestic fugue.
Robert Weiss (Synopsis: Michael More, Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia)
Performed: July 2005, 26 November 2017