Elijah, Op. 70 MWV A 25, in German: Elias, is an oratorio in the English language written by Felix Mendelssohn in 1846 for the Birmingham Festival. It depicts various events in the life of the Biblical prophet Elijah, taken from the books 1 Kings and 2 Kings in the Old Testament.
The music and its style
This piece was composed in the spirit of Mendelssohn's Baroque predecessors Bach and Handel, whose music he loved. In 1829 Mendelssohn had organized the first performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion since the composer's death and was instrumental in bringing this and other Bach works to widespread popularity. In contrast Handel's oratorios never went out of fashion (in England at any rate). Mendelssohn prepared a scholarly edition of some of Handel's oratorios for publication in London. Elijah is modelled on the oratorios of these two Baroque masters; however in its lyricism and use of orchestral and choral colour the style clearly reflects Mendelssohn's own genius as an early Romantic composer.
The work is scored for four vocal soloists (bass/baritone, tenor, alto, soprano), full symphony orchestra (including trombones, ophicleide, organ) and a large chorus singing usually in four, but occasionally eight or three (women only) parts. The title role is sung by the bass/baritone and was sung at the premiere by the Austrian bass Joseph Staudigl.
Mendelssohn originally composed the work to a German text by his friend Karl Klingemann, who had earlier provided him with the libretto for his comic operetta Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde. However on being commissioned by the Birmingham Festival to write an oratorio Mendelssohn had the libretto translated into English by William Bartholomew, and the oratorio was premiered in the English version.
The Biblical narrative
For the Biblical background to the oratorio, see the article Elijah. Mendelssohn uses these Biblical episodes, which in the original are narrated in rather laconic form, to produce intensely — almost luridly — dramatic scenes. These were doubtless well fitted to the taste of Mendelssohn's time, and a Victorian sentimentality also seems detectable in places. Among the episodes are the resurrection of a dead youth, the bringing of rain to parched Israel through Elijah's prayers and the bodily ascension of Elijah on a fiery chariot into heaven. Perhaps the most dramatic episode is the contest of the gods, in which Jehovah consumes an offered sacrifice in a column of fire after a failed sequence of frantic prayers by the prophets of the god Baal. Mendelssohn did not shrink from portraying the episode according to the stark account in the Hebrew Bible, since the discredited prophets of Baal are subsequently taken away and slain.
It is not agreed how Mendelssohn's own view of the Biblical text may have been shaped by his personal history (born into a Jewish family, he was brought up without religion until his baptism as a Lutheran at age seven), though many scholars have speculated about this. Some draw parallels between the lives of Elijah and Jesus in the final section of the oratorio. The Rev. Julius Schubring, one of the librettists who had earlier supplied the text for the oratorio Paulus (St Paul), wanted to bring a Christian perspective to the end of the oratorio, but Mendelssohn insisted that the story of Elijah be presented faithfully and without revisionism.
The work opens with a declamation by Elijah, after which the overture is played. The sections in the score are as follows:
Elijah was popular at its premiere and has been frequently performed, particularly in English-speaking countries, ever since. It is a particular favourite of amateur choral societies. Its melodrama, easy appeal and stirring choruses have provided the basis for countless successful performances.
However a number of critics, including Bernard Shaw, have treated the work harshly, emphasizing its conventional outlook and undaring musical style:
- I sat out the performance on Wednesday to the last note, an act of professional devotion which was no part of my plan for the evening … You have only to think of Parsifal, of the Ninth Symphony, of Die Zauberflöte, of the inspired moments of Bach and Handel, to see the great gulf that lies between the true religious sentiment and our delight in Mendelssohn’s exquisite prettiness.
Charles Rosen praises the work in general — "Mendelssohn's craft easily surmounted most of the demands of the oratorio, and [his oratorios, which also include St Paul] are the most impressive examples of that form in the nineteenth century." However Rosen has additionally characterized Mendelssohn as "the inventor of religious kitsch in music". In Rosen's view Mendelssohn's religious music "is designed to make us feel that the concert hall has been transformed into a church. The music expresses not religion but piety ... This is kitsch insofar as it substitutes for religion itself the emotional shell of religion."
Mendelssohn wrote the soprano part in Elijah for the 'Swedish Nightingale', Jenny Lind. Lind was devastated by the composer's premature death in 1847. She did not feel able to sing the part for a year afterwards. She resumed singing the piece at Exeter Hall in London in late 1848, raising £1,000 to fund a scholarship in his name. After Arthur Sullivan became the first recipient of the scholarship, she encouraged him in his career.
Charles Salaman adapted "He that Shall Endure to the End" from Elijah as a setting for Psalm 93 (Adonai Malakh), sung on most Friday nights at the sabbath-eve service of the London Spanish & Portuguese Jewish community.
- Todd, R. Larry (1991). Mendelssohn and His World, p. 304. Princeton University Press
- Program notes for Concert Opera Boston performance of Son and Stranger, March 15, 2009, accessed November 23, 2009
- Smither, Howard E. (2000). A History of the Oratorio: The Oratorio in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, p. 168. University of North Carolina Press
- Bernard Shaw in The World, 11 May 1892
- Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (1995), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-77933-9.
- Rosen, Carole. "Lind, Jenny (1820–1887)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 7 Dec 2008