1. The Composer and His Work
Felix Mendelssohn was born Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn and given the additional surname of Bartholdy when his family converted from Judaism to Christianity– a move motivated by his parents’ desire to spare the children from the rife anti- Semitism of 19th-century Berlin, rather than by some discovery of faith. He began composing at the age of 11, and was a gifted piano student. His family’s resources allowed him to pursue music rather than a more remunerative career; his older sister Fanny was also a gifted composer. But Felix had an additional talent not common to composers: A knack for making and keeping friends. While these friendships were enormously useful in his profession, there is no hint that they were anything less than sincere: He corresponded faithfully with both friends and family, and they responded willingly.
In the case of Elijah, many of Felix’s friends supported various aspects of the work. The success of St. Paul, his first oratorio, in 1836 led him to consider a second: He sought opinions from friends, in particular Karl Klingemann, who was secretary to the Hanovarian legation in London, and who was his host on many of his ten trips to England, about such options as “St. Peter” and “Og of Bashan”, in addition to “Elijah”. When Klingemann supported the latter, he asked another friend, theologian Julius Schubring, of Dessau, to try a libretto. In 1839, after almost two years, Schubring asked to be relieved of the duty. The project was shelved until 1845, when Felix was asked to direct the twenty- second annual music festival in Birmingham in the summer of 1846; he declined directing, which then fell to another friend, Ignaz Moscheles, but agreed to provide an oratorio for the festival. He then prevailed on Schubring to try again, and, after they met at Dessau in early 1846, Elijah went forward. William Bartholomew– who may also have been first a friend– translated the Schubring libretto, solving, in the process, some thorny problems of expression; Bartholomew was not able to start work until May of 1846, a bare three months before the performance. In fact, the entire project ran late, as Felix wrote his brother early in July: “I foresee completing my Elijah in ten to twelve days; the larger part of the second half is already in England, and the choruses are starting to learn it. A few weeks ago I was quite worried… but now am slowly beginning to look forward…”.
Another friend, the soprano Jenny Lind, was to have sung the premiere– the high F# in Hear Ye, Israel was specifically for her voice– but she declined, probably to avoid compromising her position in a contract dispute with an English theater. The substitute soprano was less than satisfactory, but the premiere took place as scheduled on August 26, 1846, with Mendelssohn conducting. After the performance, Felix solicited comments from many of his friends, and, when he returned home, began to revise the work almost at once. A second performance was scheduled for London in 1847; this trip turned into four performances in London, one in Manchester, and one in Birmingham. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert– also personal friends– attended the April 23 performance. Mendelssohn also conducted other works and appeared as soloist on the same trip. Despite his success in these endeavors, he was shocked and depressed by the death of his older sister Fanny shortly after his return home. In October of 1847 he wrote from Leipzig to his patron, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, King of Prussia, sending him the first copy of the Elijah score; in his letter he says that he had intended to deliver the score in person but was prevented by illness. Less than a month later he was dead, at the age of 38. One more oratorio had been on his agenda: Christus, for which only a few choruses had been completed.
History has not always supported Mendelssohn’s talent as a composer of vocal music; music critic George Bernard Shaw compared Elijah odiously to a transitory comic opera of his time. Mendelssohn never achieved his dream of writing an opera, one of the few forms not part of his legacy; and, after all, he wrote eight sets of Songs Without Words. But his vocal music is eminently singable: To borrow terminology from stringed instrument technique, his music “lays well” for the voice. The Chorus has derived great enjoyment from rehearsing and performing this music for your listening pleasure.
2. The Story of Elijah
There is a certain irony in the Chorus’ choice of Elijah for its Spring 1998 offering: This story of a man known for performing miracles follows the Fall 1997 performance of Britten’s St. Nicolas, about another man known for miracles. Aside from the differences in style of the two works– 20th-Century eclectic vs. early 19th-Century Romantic– the difference in textual sources is striking, from the patchwork hagiological hearsay of Nicolas’ life to the more-or-less-solid history of the Torah and Old Testament– a fitting source for a composer whose grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a noted Jewish philosopher.
Most of the story of Elijah is told in I Kings, beginning in Chapter 16, but a small part appears in Chapters 1 and 2 of II Kings. One commentator notes that most of the kings in these two chronologies were allotted at most a chapter, but Ahab, and Jezebel, his wife, appear in six chapters– simply because this is the story of Elijah, after Moses the greatest hero of Israel. The oratorio is divided into two parts: The first tells of the 42-month drought and resulting famine, initiated by Elijah’s curse upon Israel in the second bar of the music. Jezebel, wife of Ahab, who in 869 B.C. succeeded to the throne of Israel– the “northern kingdom”, which warred intermittently with Judah, the “southern kingdom”, ruled by David’s line, over nearly 200 years– had introduced the worship of the god Baal. Baalism embraced sacrifices, not only of food and animals, but also of infants. Elijah, a native of Tishbe, east of the Jordan, survived his own drought by drinking from the brook Cherith, and was fed by ravens; when Cherith also dried up, God sent Elijah to reside with a Gentile widow of Zarephath, in Sidon, Jezebel’s home country (a fact which Jesus used, much later, to twit his self-righteous Nazarene neighbors!), to the north of Israel in Phoenicia. Two subplots accompany this relocation: In the first, Elijah ensures that the widow’s food supply will not run out, and rescues her son from apparent death. This sojourn ends when God sends Elijah to meet Ahab, who happens to be searching for Elijah. Their meeting sets up the second subplot: A contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal, which Elijah wins, resulting in a ruthless purge of the priests. The action then returns to the main plot, with a youth serving as Elijah’s eyes to look for the coming of rain, and eventually the drought is broken. Mendelssohn, with Schubring and Bartholomew’s capable assistance, provides some of his most dramatic effects as the first part of the oratorio ends: One can almost hear the sound of the rushing water as the chorus sings.
In the second part of the story, Elijah has fled the wrath of Jezebel into the desert of southern Judah. Discouraged, he asks God to take his life; instead, he is miraculously fed and watered, and travels further into the desert to Mount Horeb– the holy mountain of Moses– where he experiences fire, wind, and earthquake, and finally hears the “still, small voice” of God. Elijah returns to unspecified duties– actually to confront Ahab and Jezebel, and to anoint Ahab’s successor– and eventually to be taken to heaven in a fiery chariot carried by a whirlwind. It is interesting that, in contrast to the first part, there is little action in Part 2; much of the text is moralistic, and the moralizing continues after Elijah’s departure. Yet some of Mendelssohn’s finest music accompanies these passages: O Rest in the Lord; Lift Thine Eyes and “He, Watching Over Israel”, each paraphrasing Psalm 121; the quartet, Come, Every One That Thirsteth; the aria, Then Shall the Righteous Shine Forth; and several less-well-known choruses, deserving of more attention than they have had, including Be Not Afraid, Holy is God the Lord, He That Shall Endure, and But the Lord from the North, the last evoking the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 41. The final chorus, And Then Shall Your Light Break Forth, closes with a fugue of praise based on the opening lines of Psalm 8, “O Lord, how excellent thy name is in all the earth!”.
J. R. Fancher