Felix Mendelssohn: Elijah Oratorio, Op. 70
The young Felix Mendelssohn
Although Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah was completed in 1846 — just a year before the composer’s untimely death — its origins lay almost a decade earlier, right after the success of his first oratorio, St. Paul. While Mendelssohn had originally turned to a childhood friend, Carl Klingemann, to prepare a libretto, nothing came of their correspondence. Similarly, conversations about a text for Elijah between Mendelssohn and Julius Schubring, another longtime friend and the librettist of St. Paul, petered out after 1839.
It was not until 1845 that Mendelssohn returned to the idea of setting the story of the Biblical prophet to music. In that year, the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival, which had already commissioned the composer’s second piano concerto, invited Mendelssohn to create a major choral work for the upcoming season. (After a triumphant visit to London in 1829, he would tour the country nine more times, leaving a lasting impact on British musical life; he even became friendly with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who became fervent champions of his music.) This prompted Mendelssohn to resume his discussions with Schubring about the libretto. While Schubring, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, wanted to incorporate passages from the New Testament and chorale melodies into the score, Mendelssohn insisted that the libretto focus solely on Elijah. Mendelssohn ultimately prevailed: the text was adapted from several books of the Old Testament, using Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible.
Despite (or even because of) Mendelssohn’s enthusiasm for the project, the score was not complete until several weeks before the performance; in fact, the last chorus was sent to the festival singers only nine days before Elijah’s premiere. Similarly, details on the English translation were mainly hashed out at the eleventh hour with Mendelssohn’s frequent translator, William Bartholomew. Nonetheless, the work’s premiere on August 26, 1846, with the composer on the podium and nearly four hundred performers under him, was an unqualified success, with eight numbers encored. The Times noted:
“The last note of 'Elijah' was drowned in a long-continued unanimous volley of plaudits, vociferous and deafening. It was as though enthusiasm, long-checked, had suddenly burst its bonds and filled the air with shouts of exultation…Never was there a more complete triumph — never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art.”
Elijah would be repeated at every subsequent festival. In spite of the accolades, Mendelssohn immediately set to work on revising the score, presenting the revamped work in London seven months before his death.
While the oratorio has remained immensely popular in English-speaking countries, especially with amateur choral societies, opinions about the work have varied as Mendelssohn’s historical reputation waxed and waned. Although Mendelssohn was almost universally praised during his lifetime for his facility and mastery of classical forms, after his death, growing anti-Semitism in Germany (and elsewhere as well) led to his denigration as a “second-rate” composer. Even his so-called admirers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, damned him with faint praise: the philosopher called Mendelssohn a “lovely interlude” between Beethoven and Wagner. Similarly, despite the composer’s popularity in England, the composer came to be seen as the embodiment of Victorian conservatism. George Bernard Shaw (who incidentally was never at a loss for an opinion), lambasted Mendelssohn for his “kid-glove gentility, his conventional sentimentality, and his despicable oratorio-mongering.” Such views were reflected in opinions about the merits of Elijah; not only was Elijah presented as evidence that Mendelssohn’s childhood conversion to Christianity from Judaism had been insincere, but the oratorio was also viewed as “religious kitsch,” replacing the substance of religion with a shell.
In more recent times, however, a more balanced attitude toward Mendelssohn has taken hold; if the composer missed true greatness, as the critic H.L. Mencken said, he failed only “by a hair.” Indeed, there is now greater appreciation for Elijah as one of the major choral works of the 19th century. While the work undoubtedly owes much to the models of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel, its strength of characterization and dramatic thrust allows it to rest on its own laurels. Almost certainly, the finished work lives up to Mendelssohn’s own conceptions of the work:
“I imagined Elijah as a grand, mighty prophet, of the kind we might require in our own day…energetic and zealous, but also stern, angry, brooding, in striking contrast to the rabble you find both in court and in the populace — indeed, up against the whole world yet borne aloft on angels’ wings.”
Notes prepared by
BCCO Assistant Conductor