Felix Mendelssohn St. Paul oratorio, OPUS 36
Born to a wealthy German family in 1809, Felix Mendelssohn was not only an incredibly prolific composer, but also an established pianist and conductor. He began composing at a young age. By the time he reached fifteen, he had written a large body of works, including twelve string symphonies and one symphony for full orchestra. He wrote his famous overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1826, when he was seventeen years old.
St. Paul is the first of Mendelssohn’s two completed oratorios. Commissioned in 1831 by Johann Schelble, the piece tells the story of St. Paul the Apostle. It is not entirely clear why Mendelssohn chose this story in particular; some believe it was because St. Paul was a converted Jew. (The Mendelssohn family was of Jewish heritage and converted to Lutheranism in the early 19th century, though their decision may have been based less on religious faith than on a desire to improve the family’s social position.) Nevertheless, many agree that Mendelssohn was most likely attracted to the dramatic possibilities of St. Paul’s story. In 1835, Mendelssohn showed St. Paul to his father, Abraham, who wrote a long criticism of the piece. After his father’s death in November of that year, the piece took on a new meaning for Mendelssohn: it became a musical tribute to his father. The piece premiered in 1836 in Düsseldorf. Later that year it was performed in Liverpool, England, and the following year, at the Birmingham Festival. The libretto that BCCO sings today was translated into English by Mendelssohn’s friend, Karl Klingemann, at the composer’s request. St. Paul was wildly popular during Mendelssohn’s lifetime: Richard Wagner praised it in 1843 as “utter perfection.” Eventually, St. Paul would be largely overshadowed by Mendelssohn’s Elijah oratorio, which premiered ten years later. (BCCO performed Elijah in June 2014.)
The text of St. Paul is based on the Acts of the Apostles from the Bible. Part I begins with Saul’s persecution of Christians, as well as the stoning of St. Stephen. Later comes Paul’s conversion, baptism, and ordination as a minister by Ananias. Part II begins with Paul and Barnabas as ambassadors of the Church, followed by the stoning of Paul. The piece ends with Paul leaving Ephesus for Jerusalem.
The music of the oratorio has influences from both Bach and Handel. It ranges from lyrical chorales, similar to those used in Bach’s St. John or St. Matthew Passions, to dramatic choruses, interspersed with arias and recitatives sung by soloists. Mendelssohn’s dramatic use of the chorus is reminiscent of Handel’s oratorios. Much of the overture and some of the first choral number is based on the chorale “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (Sleepers, wake, a voice is calling). For Jesus’s appearance to Saul in movement fourteen, Mendelssohn used a four-part women’s chorus as the voice of Jesus, an unprecedented move that sparked some controversy.
In the post-WWII era, there was a movement against Mendelssohn’s music. Whether this was entirely because of the anti-Semitism present during the war is hard to tell; however, some believed that because his life was relatively easy and comfortable, Mendelssohn’s music lacked the emotion of that of other composers, and was therefore innately inferior. This was quite the change from the adoration he had received during his life. More recently, his music has been viewed in a more balanced light, and there has been some resurgence in performances of his pieces. BCCO’s performances of Mendelssohn’s St. Paul oratorio represent a rare opportunity to experience the largely overlooked and rarely performed St. Paul in its entirety.
— MARGARET MARTIN, Conducting Apprentice
Page from St. Paul working manuscript