Elijah (oratorio)

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Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah depicts events in the life of the Biblical prophet Elijah.

Elijah (German: Elias), Op. 70, MWV A 25, is an oratorio written by Felix Mendelssohn. It premiered in 1846 at the Birmingham Festival. It depicts events in the life of the Biblical prophet Elijah, taken from the books 1 Kings and 2 Kings of the Old Testament.

Music and its style[edit]

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. By contrast, Handel's oratorios never went out of fashion in England. 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.[citation needed]

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 for bass-baritone and was sung at the premiere by the Austrian bass Joseph Staudigl.[1]

Mendelssohn had discussed an oratorio based on Elijah in the late 1830s with his friend Karl Klingemann, who had provided him with the libretto for his comic operetta Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde,[2] which resulted in a partial text that Klingemann was unable to finish. Mendelssohn then turned to Julius Schubring, the librettist for his earlier oratorio St. Paul, who quickly abandoned Klingemann's work and produced his own text that combined the story of Elijah as told in the Book of Kings with Psalms. In 1845, the Birmingham Festival commissioned an oratorio from Mendelssohn, who worked with Schubring to put the text in final form and in 1845 and 1846 composed his oratorio to the German text. He had it promptly translated into English by William Bartholomew, who was not only a poet but a composer who could work with the score as he translated. The oratorio premiered in its English version.[3] The German version premiered on the composer's birthday, February 3, 1848, in Leipzig a few months after Mendelssohn's death, conducted by Niels Wilhelm Gade.

Biblical narrative[edit]

Mendelssohn uses these Biblical episodes relating to Elijah, which in the original, 1 Kings 17:19 and 2 Kings 2:1, are narrated in rather laconic form, to produce intensely dramatic scenes, by adding several related biblical texts, mostly taken from the Old Testament. These were doubtless well fitted to the taste of Mendelssohn's time, and a Victorian sentimentality also seems detectable in places.

Among the episodes is the resurrection of a dead youth. A dramatic episode is the contest of the gods, in which Jehovah consumes an offered sacrifice in a column of fire, while a sequence of increasingly frantic prayers by the prophets of the god Baal failed. Part II is concluded by the bringing of rain to parched Israel through Elijah's prayers. Part II depicts the prosecution of Elijah by the Queen, his retirement to the desert, his vision of God appearing, his return to his work, and his ascension on a fiery chariot into heaven. The work ends with prophecies and praise.


The work in two parts opens with a declamation by Elijah, after which the overture is played. The sections are listed in the following table, with the text in both German and English, a biblical source for the passage (the dramatic action highlighted by a background colour), and the voices. The choir is mostly four-part SATB, but up to eight parts. The soloists are Elijah (baritone), soprano (S), often also singing the Widow, the Youth and Angel I, alto (A), often also singing Angel II and the Queen, tenor (T), often also singing the parts of Obadiah and Ahab. Mendelssohn counted on several soloists, requesting Soprano I and II in movement two, additionally Alto I and II in movement 35, but the work is often performed with four soloists.

Some movements are simple oratorio forms such as recitative and aria, others explore hybrid combinations, such as recitative with choir, for dramatic effect. The overture leads attacca to the first choral movement. The choir acts as the people ("Das Volk"), but also comments, like the choir in Greek drama.

Movements of Part I of Mendelssohn's Elijah
No. Description Incipit Translation Text source Voices
Introduction So wahr der Herr, der Gott Israels lebet As God the Lord of Israel liveth 1 Kings 17:1 Elijah
1 Chorus Hilf, Herr! Help, Lord! SATB
2 Duet with choir Herr, höre unser Gebet! Lord! bow thine ear to our prayer! S A SATB
3 Recitative Zerreißet eure Herzen Ye people, rend your hearts Obadiah
4 Aria So ihr mich von ganzem Herzen suchet If with all your hearts Obadiah
5 Chorus Aber der Herr sieht es nicht Yet doth the Lord see it not SATB
6 Recitative Elias, gehe von hinnen Elijah! get thee hence 1 Kings 17:2-4 Angel 1
7 Double quartet Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen For he shall give his angels Psalms 91:11 Angels: SSAATTBB
Recitative Nun auch der Bach vertrocknet ist Now Cherith's brook is dried up 1 Kings 17:7-9 Angel I
8 Recitative, aria and duet Was hast du mir getan What have I to do with thee? 1 Kings 17:18-24 Widow, Elijah
9 Chorus Wohl dem, der den Herrn fürchtet Blessed are the men who fear him SATB
10 Recitative with choir So wahr der Herr Zebaoth lebet As God the Lord of Sabaoth liveth 1 Kings 18:15-25 Elijah, Ahab, SATB
11 Chorus Baal erhöre uns! Baal, we cry to thee; hear and answer us! 1 Kings 18:26 SSAATTBB
12 Recitative with choir Rufet lauter! Denn er ist ja Gott! Call him louder, for he is a god! 1 Kings 18:27 Elijah, SATB
13 Recitative with choir Rufel lauter! Er hört euch nicht. Call him louder! he heareth not! 1 Kings 18:28 Elijah, SATB
14 Aria Herr, Gott Abrahams, Isaaks und Israels Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel! 1 Kings 18:36-37 Elijah, SATB
15 Quartet Wirf dein Anliegen auf den Herrn Cast thy burden upon the Lord Psalms 55:23 S A T B
16 Recitative with choir Der du deine Diener machst zu Geistern O thou, who makest thine angels spirits 1 Kings 18:3840 Elijah, SATB
17 Aria Ist nicht des Herrn Wort wie ein Feuer Is not his word like a fire? Elijah
18 Arioso Weh ihnen, dass sie von mir weichen! Woe unto them who forsake him! A
19 Recitative with choir Hilf deinem Volk, du Mann Gottes! O man of God, help thy people! 1 Kings 18:43-44 Obadiah, Elijah, SATB, Youth
20 Chorus Dank sei dir, Gott Thanks be to God SATB
Movements of Part II of Mendelssohn's Elijah
No. Incipit Translation Source Voices
21 Aria Höre, Israel Hear ye, Israel! Deuteronomy 6:4 S
22 Chorus Fürchte dich nicht, spricht unser Gott Be not afraid, saith God the Lord SATB
23 Recitative with choir Der Herr hat dich erhoben The Lord hath exalted thee 1 Kings 19:2 Elijah, Queen SATB
24 Chorus Wehe ihm, er muss sterben! Woe to him, he shall perish Obadiah Elijah
26 Aria Es ist genug, so nimm nun, Herr, meine Seele It is enough; Lord take my life 1 Kings 19:4 Elijah
27 Recitative Siehe, er schläft See, now he sleepeth T
28 Trio Hebe deine Augen auf zu den Bergen Lift thine eyes S S A
29 Chorus Siehe, der Hüter Israels schläft noch schlummert nicht He, watching over Israel, slumbers not SATB
30 Recitative Stehe auf, Elias, denn du hast einen großen Weg vor dir Arise, Elijah, for thou hast a long journey 1 Kings 19:7 Angel I, Elijah
31 Aria Sei stille dem Herrn O rest in the Lord Angel I
32 Chorus Wer bis an das Ende beharrt, der wird selig. He that shall endure to the end, shall be saved. Matthew 10:22 SATB
33 Recitative Herr, es wird Nacht um mich Night falleth round me, Lord! 1 Kings 19:11-25 Elijah, Angel II
34 Chorus Der Herr ging vorüber Behold! God the Lord passeth by! 1 Kings 19:11 SATB
35 Chorus Seraphim standen über ihm; Heilig ist Gott der Herr Above him stood the Seraphim; Holy is God the Lord (chorus) Isaiah 6:2 A; S S A A SATB
36 Choir recitative Gehe wiederum hinab! Ich gehe hinab Go, return upon thy way! I go on my way 1 Kings 19:15-16 SATB; Elijah
37 Arioso Ja, es sollen wohl die Berge weichen For the mountains shall depart Isaiah 54:10 Elijah
38 Chorus Und der Prophet Elias brach hervor Then did Elijah the prophet break forth 2 Kings 2:1 SATB
39 Aria Dann werden die Gerechten leuchten Then shall the righteous shine forth T
40 Recitative Darum ward gesendet der Prophet Elias Behold, God hath sent Elijah S
41 Chorus Aber einer erwacht von Mitternacht But the Lord, from the north hath raised one Isaiah 41:25 SATB
Quartet Wohlan, alle, die ihr durstig seid O come everyone that thirsteth S A T B
42 Chorus Alsdann wird euer Licht hervorbrechen And then shall your light break forth 1 Kings 19:2-25 SATB
Herr, unser Herrscher Lord, our Ruler Psalms 8:1 SATB


Birmingham Town Hall, site of the premiere of Mendelssohn's Elijah

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. Prince Albert inscribed a libretto for the oratorio Elijah in 1847: "To the noble artist who, surrounded by the Baal-worship of false art, has been able, like a second Elijah, through genius and study, to remain true to the service of true art."[4] 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.[5]

Its popularity has changed over the years. After Boston's Handel and Haydn Society presented the work for the first time in February 1848, its success resulted in eight more performances that spring. In the mid-1920s, however, H.T. Parker, the city's principal music critic, described how members of the audience gazed upward at a recent performance: "How many of those eyes were there in rapture, or were counting the four dead lights in the central sunburst of the ceiling?.... Elijah is hopelessly, awfully, irremediably mid-Victorian.[6]

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 Mendelssohn Scholarship, she encouraged him in his career.[7]

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.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Todd, R. Larry (1991). Mendelssohn and His World, p. 304. Princeton University Press
  2. ^ Program notes for Concert Opera Boston performance of Son and Stranger, March 15, 2009, accessed November 23, 2009
  3. ^ Smither, Howard E. (2000). A History of the Oratorio: The Oratorio in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, p. 168. University of North Carolina Press
  4. ^ Peter Mercer-Taylor, The Life of Mendelssohn (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 200
  5. ^ Bernard Shaw in The World, 11 May 1892
  6. ^ Teresa M. Neff and Jan Swafford, eds., The Handel and Haydn Society: Bringing Music to Life for 200 Years (Jaffrey, NH: David R. Godine, 2014), pp. 63, 161
  7. ^ Rosen, Carole. "Lind, Jenny (1820–1887)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 7 Dec 2008

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