Grand Finale: Elijah
Felix Mendelssohn 1809-1847
Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn
Elijah, Op. 70

Felix Mendelssohn was the scion of a famous German Jewish family deeply involved in the Enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century – his grandfather was the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His father, a banker, used to joke “I used to be known as the son of my father; now I am known as the father of my son!” Like many members of his family, Felix, together with his siblings, converted to Christianity in 1816, not so much out of religious conviction but from a desire to allow him to partake more fully of German culture and to gain greater social acceptance. Yet, throughout his short life he expressed a deep belief in his new faith in numerous hymns, settings of Psalms and other religious compositions; at the same time he never completely abandoned his Jewish roots. He demonstrated this dual allegiance in his two oratorios, Paulus, (1836) based on the Christian Scriptures, and Elijah (1846) based on the Hebrew Scriptures.

Not long after the premiere of Paulus, Mendelssohn was seeking an Old Testament subject for a new oratorio. In 1838 he even asked a friend, the theologian Julius Schubring, to prepare a libretto on the subject of Elijah. Mendelssohn had definite ideas about the nature of the text, as he wrote to Schubring, “…the dramatic element should predominate. The personages should act and speak as if they were living beings.”  But Schubring felt that the oratorio should be a musical sermon, stressing the moral and uplifting aspects of the Old Testament texts; he considered any degree of dramatic realism inappropriate in a sacred work. The team fell apart and the project dropped.

As a youth, Mendelssohn had traveled extensively in the British Isles, ultimately becoming extremely popular in England. His prodigious abilities captured the notice of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who granted him a private audience during which both the composer and the Queen performed. He conducted Paulus in 1837 and his Symphony No.2 – Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) in 1840 at the Birmingham Festival. In 1845 the Festival Committee wrote him to solicit a new oratorio for the following season’s festival, just the spur the composer needed to take up the abandoned Elijah project. But this time he wrote the libretto himself – in German – albeit with Schubring’s assistance in choosing suitable biblical texts. He drove himself furiously to finish the work, including an English version, in time for the festival in August 1846, and conducted the premiere before a packed hall. It was a tremendous and unprecedented success, probably the highlight of Mendelssohn's career. Sadly, he died 14 months later.

In England, Elijah quickly attained a status second only to Handel’s Messiah. It received countless performances, including at the Three Choirs Festival (rotating among the cathedrals of Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester) where it was scheduled every year from 1847 to 1930. Its popularity did not wane until the middle of the last century, when tastes ran more to Baroque oratorios.

Mendelssohn was well schooled in these Baroque predecessors. In 1829 he had personally mounted a J.S. Bach revival with an historic performance of the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin that virtually rescued the great composer’s music from the counterpoint classroom. His sojourns in Britain allowed him to explore Handel’s choral music extensively and to conduct a number of the oratorios.

More than in Messiah, Elijah’s roots lie in Handel’s dramatic oratorios, Saul, Judas Maccabaeus, Jephtha, etc. These “operas without staging” brought to life the drama and personalities of biblical characters, interspersing the narratives with musical commentary on the moral issues raised by their behavior. In both his own oratorios, Mendelssohn used larger than life personalities whose greatness did not preclude human suffering. In Elijah, however, he learned from the mistakes in Paulus, which was too preachy. Not content with a single incident, Mendelssohn set the prophet’s entire biography as a series of gripping dramatic crises. Often cited as a pre-figuring of Christ, Elijah begins his career in popular triumph in Part 1; in Part 2, he faces persecution, despair and finally apotheosis. The chorus played the dual role of commentator and community, as it had in ancient Greek drama.

In Part 1 God has stricken Israel with a drought, presumably as punishment for its apostasy in accepting its neighbors’ false god, Baal. Despite Elijah’s clear-cut statement that opens the Oratorio, explaining the reasons behind the disaster, no one appears to be listening. Example 1 In a chorus that has its roots in the opening chorus of Bach's St. John Passion, The Israelites lament their plight more in self-pity than contrition. Example 2 To turn the community around – especially King Ahab – the Prophet must undergo three trials that test both himf and his God. The first comes immediately as a widow begs him to revive her dead child. Example 3 Despite Elijah’s success through his prayer to God, the Israelites still don’t get it, begging Baal to alleviate their suffering from the drought. For his second trial, Elijah pits the One God against Baal to test which one will bring the desperately needed rain. Example 4 For many people the contest with Baal is the heart of the oratorio: the glib chorus (“Baal, answer us”); Example 5 Elijah’s mocking challenge (“Call him louder”); Example 6 the chorus’s increasingly frantic pleas; Example 7 Elijah’s prayer (“Lord, God of Abraham”); Example 8 the agonizing wait until the child’s report of the slowly gathering storm; and Elijah’s song of triumph (“Is not His word like a fire!”). Example 9

If there is any weakness in Mendelssohn’s oratorio, it results from his having to outdo himself, topping one of the greatest scenes in the history of the genre. Part 2, which centers on the prophet’s inner struggle as he is persecuted by King Ahab and particularly Queen Jezebel, lacks the dramatic intensity of Part 1. Handel might have given Jezebel an aria di bravura (as he does to most of his female villains), but Mendelssohn allows her only a recitative Example 10 to whip the Israelites into a murderous mob. Example 11 Here, he borrows his musical and dramatic approach from Bach’s two Passions.

Warned and comforted by his friend Obadiah, Elijah faces his final challenge, despair – not in God but in himself and the failings of the community. Mendelssohn strives mightily to make this internal struggle the most critical event in the prophet’s life, especially in Elijah’s suicidal aria “It is enough” Example 12 and the arioso, “Oh, Lord, I have labored in vain.” Mendelssohn returns to the Handelian model, giving his protagonist three intense arias during the course of the oratorio instead of the somber, but stark, accompanied recitatives of Bach’s Jesus.

However compelling Mendelssohn’s portrayal of his hero/prophet, the co-star of Elijah is the chorus. Alongside Elijah’s personal drama is the collective drama of the Israelite community. From the strident final invocation to Baal to the lilting “He, watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps,” Example 13 Mendelssohn, with unprecedented skill and originality, captures in music the essence of each change in the quixotic psychology of the Israelites. For a chorister, it doesn’t get any better than this. Those uncounted British performances were as much for the singers as the audience.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2019