Program notes for Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s performance of Elijah on November 5, 2016 at Koerner Hall.
Noel Edison speaks on why he chose Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah to celebrate his 20th season with the Choir:
How could I not choose a work by Felix Mendelssohn, the namesake of the Choir? And Elijah is one of my all-time favourite orchestral-choral works. Orchestral works are in the Choir’s DNA and this work is chock-full of big chorus effects. I love the drama and the way the story plays out — it’s religious opera bursting with the hellfire and brimstone of the Old Testament. And it’s tuneful and fulfilling, full of one beautiful piece after another. Enjoy!
Written by Rick Phillips
Between the end of the 17th century and the end of the 19th, England could not boast about too many notable native-born composers. Sir Arthur Sullivan, Sir Charles H.H. Parry and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford could be seen as exceptions between Purcell and Elgar, but for about two hundred years music in England tended to be spear-headed by foreigners. In the first half of the 18th century, Handel was prominent, with his many operas and then oratorios. At the end of the century, Joseph Haydn enjoyed two successful stints in England. isHis last twelve symphonies, composed for his English journeys, are known as the “London” symphonies. Then, in the first half of the 19th century, Felix Mendelssohn (born in 1809) became the darling of English society. As both a performer and composer, Mendelssohn enjoyed great fame in Victorian England, causing Prince Albert to dub him “The Second Elijah.”
Mendelssohn loved the choral works of Bach and Handel and jumped at the chance to compose one of his own when he was commissioned in 1831. The result was his oratorio St. Paul, premiered in 1836 in Dusseldorf, but presented in English within a year in Liverpool, London and Birmingham. Mendelssohn was keen to try to repeat the success of St. Paul and planned for an oratorio on the subject of the Old Testament prophet Elijah. But distracted by his busy career, he put the idea aside until he received a commission for a new oratorio in 1845 from the Birmingham Festival. Birmingham was Mendelssohn’s favourite English city after London, and he had enjoyed considerable success there. For help and advice, he contacted his childhood friend and the librettist for St. Paul, the Rev. Julius Schubring. Mendelssohn was attracted to the story of the prophet Elijah for two reasons. First, the story with its drought, rain, fire, storms and earthquakes allowed for high drama and evocative scenes. But secondly, Mendelssohn was worried that Europe was in a state of moral decay. He wrote to Schubring,
“I imagined Elijah as a grand and mighty prophet, of the kind we could really do with today – strong, zealous, and yes, even bad-tempered, angry, and brooding – in contrast to the riff-raff, whether of the court or of the people, and indeed in contrast to almost the whole world – and yet borne aloft as if on the wings of angels.”
But Mendelssohn and Schubring clashed over Elijah. Schubring, a fundamentalist Lutheran pastor, wanted to superimpose New Testament beliefs on the Old Testament story. To him, an oratorio should be a kind of sermon in music, and drama and scene-painting were inappropriate. One of Schubring’s plans was to have Christ appear at the end of the oratorio as a sign of the fulfillment of Elijah’s prophecies. Mendelssohn rejected the idea, but eventually they were able to work out their differences and Elijah was completed in August, 1846, just two weeks before the premiere at the Birmingham Festival. The response was rapturous, and four arias and four choruses had to be repeated. Mendelssohn himself claimed it was his greatest premiere ever, but typically, he was unsatisfied with the work, and rewrote parts of it before the London premiere eight months later, attended by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The German premiere was in Hamburg in Oct. 1847, but by then Mendelssohn was too ill to conduct. He died on Nov. 4, 1847 at the age of thirty-eight. Sketches for another oratorio, Christus, were found on his desk.
Elijah tells of several key incidents in the life of the 9thcentury (BCE) prophet. In Part 1, God brings on a drought because of Israel’s faithlessness, Elijah proves that his God is the true and only one, and rain returns to the parched land. In Part 2, Elijah flees to the wilderness, resigned to the failure of his mission, but his spirit and strength are restored by the appearance of God and he ascends into heaven. Basically, it’s the story of a good man who fights against evil and finally rises to heaven in a fiery chariot.
During the Victorian Age, among oratorios, only Messiah by Handel was more popular than Elijah. Today, their popularity remains with both Messiah and Elijah considered favourites by lovers of choral music.
Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, broadcaster, teacher, host and music tour guide. www.soundadvice1.com