The program notes are written by Rena Roussin, Musicologist-in-Residence.
A resounding success at both its 1846 premiere in Birmingham, England, and at its revised London premiere in 1847, Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah has remained a beloved staple of English-language choral repertoire ever since. Having experienced earlier success with his 1836 oratorio Paulus, which depicted the life of St. Paul, Mendelssohn was eager to next explore an Old Testament topic, and chose to focus on the life of the prophet Elijah. The oratorio’s libretto, by Julius Schubring (with English translation by William Bartholomew), fuses direct Biblical quotations together with paraphrases and free text that expand upon events from numerous sections of the Old Testament, particularly the 1 and 2 Book of Kings.
Mendelssohn was deeply hesitant to publicly discuss his personal religious beliefs, yet given the centrality and influence of the prophet Elijah’s story to both Jewish and Christian traditions, Mendelssohn’s choice of oratorio topic seems especially fitting. The grandson of Jewish Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and originally raised areligious, Felix was baptized a Protestant at the age of 7 with the rest of his siblings. While the composer practiced Christianity throughout his life, he nevertheless remained demonstrably proud of his Jewish heritage and of his grandfather’s intellectual legacy. While Mendelssohn’s exact beliefs and intentions surrounding his choice of topic cannot be known, it is worth noting that he took an active role in collaborating with Schubring about how Elijah’s story ought to be told. He openly rejected Schubring’s suggestion that the final chorus invoke Christ and the teachings of the New Testament, and frequently requested that the librettist prioritize dramatic action over excessive moments of stasis, contemplation, and moral reflection.
A keen student of music history, Mendelssohn was enamored with sacred music of the Baroque period, particularly the well-known oratorios of Handel and the sacred choral works of a then-obscure Baroque composer from Leipzig named Johann Sebastian Bach. Indeed, Mendelssohn was partly responsible for the nineteenth-century revival of German interest in Bach’s work, as Mendelssohn organized and conducted an 1829 performance of the Saint Matthew Passion in Berlin – the first performance of the work to have occurred after Bach’s death. Yet beyond mere interest, both Bach’s and Handel’s work in sacred choral music demonstrably influenced Mendelssohn’s work on the oratorio, Bach’s influence looming large in Mendelssohn’s earlier Paulus, while the influence of Handel’s choruses is heard more readily in Elijah. In many ways, Mendelssohn fused tradition and innovation into his oratorios, firmly grounding his musical work in the musical lyricism and harmonic language of the Romantic Era, while also invoking the larger history of German sacred choral music. In its bringing together of tradition and innovation, Elijah encapsulates – in some ways, is perhaps even in some ways about – musical history and highlights of the oratorio as a genre, which may well be a factor in its enduring popularity among audiences and musicians alike.
Elijah is also a work that reflects critically on and poses challenges to the history and conventions of the oratorio. Originally sung in churches to replace operas during the Lenten season, oratorios have always balanced a thin line between the world of opera and sacred music. While Elijah certainly features stunning chorales and arias that provide the moments of reflection and divine contemplation the oratorio is meant to foster, the work is equally invested in – even foregrounds – dramatic action. Oratorio historian Howard E. Smither has suggested that Elijah, with its minimal narration, abundant musical-dramatic dialogue between characters, and prioritizing of action over stasis and moralizing, functions as the opera that Mendelssohn never got to write.
However, for all its musical and dramatic choices that suggest the stuff of opera – shouting crowds, a vengeful Queen, and a flaming chariot among them – Elijah is grounded in a profoundly spiritual, devotional ethos. Mendelssohn’s musical characterizes Elijah, as nineteenth-century critic Otto Jahn observed, to humanize and make tangible the prophet’s faith. Gone, Jahn notes, is the Old Testament “man of iron who, with unwavering courage, challenges the king…with flaming words, knowing no danger.” Instead, Mendelssohn depicts the prophet as a man of piety, capable of righteous anger, yet most predominantly characterized by “firmness in his faith that God hears him when he prays to him.” Mendelssohn’s score takes care to embed Elijah’s traits of “warm and deep feeling, of a sincere and powerful heart.”* At the same time, the work as a whole, through its choruses and words, professes timeless spiritual values, stressing the worth of endurance and perseverance, the importance of hope amid despair.
In these challenging times, what a profoundly necessary story.
*The English translation of Jahn’s remarks on Elijah belongs to Susan Gillespie, and is published in Mendelssohn and His World.