“My oratorio gives me increasing pleasure…”, the 25-year-old Felix Mendelssohn wrote his younger sister, Rebecka, in late November of 1834. His “pleasure” was in the nature of catharsis; he had just resigned as the musical director of a new theatre in Dusseldorf, following a quarrel with the theatrical director of this attraction– almost assuredly Mendelssohn’s own fault, as attested by even his closest friends. The oratorio– Mendelssohn’s first, although he was an admirer of Handel’s works and had conducted some of them, as well as Haydn’s– was St. Paul. It had been commissioned three years earlier by Johann Niklaus Schelble, conductor of the Cecilian choir and orchestra of Frankfurt, who first met Felix when the composer was but thirteen. Mendelssohn did not start on St. Paul until March of 1834, but his unplanned disengagement now lent impetus to the work. Even so, it was to be another year-and-a-half before St. Paul was complete– and yet another emotional adversity was to instigate the final journey.
While Felix Mendelssohn had an incredible gift for making friends, among whom were many of the most talented individuals of their times, he reserved his greatest loyalty for his own family– particularly his older sister, Fanny, and his father, Abraham. Felix’s deep affection for Fanny may have forestalled any serious interest in marrying. Although Felix did not agree with all of his father’s positions, it was not out of mere filial respect that he listened to Abraham’s views; his father was, he told others, “my only true friend, my teacher in art and life”. Felix played segments of St. Paul for his father as early as the summer of 1834, when they could be together, and Abraham took a keen interest in this work. Responding to a long, analytical letter from Abraham about the oratorio in March, 1835, the composer wrote, “…Often I am at a loss to understand how you, who have had no technical training in music, can have such acute musical judgment.” He added that after ” a single very imperfect hearing”, Abraham had put his finger on weaknesses that he himself had missed for many months. Thus when Abraham died suddenly in November of 1835, Felix again needed catharsis, this time to bring to closure Abraham’s unfulfilled wishes.
The first priority was to bring St. Paul to a successful premiere. This objective was achieved on May 22, 1836– not at the Frankfurt Cacilienverein, as commissioned, because Johann Schelble was seriously ill– but at the Lower Rhine Music Festival in Dusseldorf. The second performance conducted by Felix was in English in 1837. Abraham’s wish that his son should not remain a bachelor was accorded second priority. No one doubted that Felix would focus as intensely on that task as he did on conducting, composition and performance, but a connection with St. Paul was forged by fate, rather than intention. Following the premiere, Felix went from Dusseldorf to Frankfurt to fill in for the ailing Schelble, foregoing a planned holiday. While in Frankfurt, he made the acquaintance of a Huguenot minister’s widow, whose good looks had been inherited by her daughters, Julie and Cecile; he became engaged to Cecile Jeanrenaud in September, 1836, and they were married in Frankfurt on March 28, 1837, ten months after the St. Paul debut.
The frequently quoted opinion that Mendelssohn chose St. Paul’s story because the Mendelssohn family were themselves converted Jews is of questionable veracity. It is not clear who really selected the topic for the oratorio. It may have been Schelble, or perhaps the ecclesiastic, Julius Schubring, a Mendelssohn friend from childhood, who is credited with the St. Paul libretto. Even if it was Felix himself, the choice seems to have been based primarily on the dramatic possibilities. Felix rarely talked about his Jewish heritage, although he did not reject it either (the rest of the family assumed the name Bartholdy, to avoid an obvious Jewish connection). What is clear is that Felix approached St. Paul with a detailed plan, almost a libretto itself, knowing what approach he wanted to use in each scene. During the 26-month formulation of the work, he stayed close to his original plan, although substantial changes were made in the libretto as it finally evolved. The premiere went well except for a mistake by one of the “false witnesses”, which Felix’s sister Fanny corrected by singing it from her place in the alto section of the chorus (her brother remarked afterward that he was glad the error was that of a false witness!).
Musically, Mendelssohn’s homage to Bach and Handel is immediately evident; one hears echoes, both textual and choral, of Bach’s Wachet Auf, in the overture and later in the chorus, particularly in the chorales used to demarcate the action (a Bach device in itself). But there were departures, some of them stunning: A women’s chorus, for example, represents the voice of Jesus, “Saul, why persecutest thou me?”. The text, adapted primarily from Acts, recounts, in Part I, the stoning of Stephen, and Saul’s persecution of Christians; the familiar aria, “But the Lord is Mindful of His Own”, foretells the miracle of Paul’s conversion, and Part I closes with Paul’s commissioning as a minister by Ananias. In Part II, Paul and Barnabas become the ambassadors of the Church, celebrated by another familiar melody, “How Lovely Are the Messengers”. Other dramatic milestones depict the Jews attempting to entrap Paul; the healing of a crippled man at Lystra; and Paul’s farewell in Ephesus. Throughout, the chorus and soloists intersperse commentary, drawn from other parts of the Scriptures, e.g., Isaiah, Timothy, and St. John’s Gospel. In his use of drama, Mendelssohn shows his allegiance to Handel, and foreshadows his own triumph, a decade later, with Elijah.
Despite its familiar melodies, St. Paul is rarely performed in its entirety; not only is this its first performance in the 23-year history of the Naperville Chorus, but few Chorus members have sung it in any venue. We think you will agree that there is much to admire in this rarely heard gem.