skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Elijah, Op. 70

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Helmuth Rilling, conductor / Mendelssohn: Elijah Apr. 5 - 7, 2012
© Thomas May

"Never was there a more complete triumph-never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art." That was how The Times of London reported Elijah's premiere on August 26, 1846. The success of this late-period composition by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was overwhelming-above all in England, where it immediately gained the status of a worthy successor to the finest oratorios of Handel. Such a vindication might seem to be of the sort a composer could only pray for. And, on the surface at least, it might even have been thought to confirm the widespread myth of Mendelssohn as a happy exception to the Romantic image of the misunderstood, maladjusted artist. No less prominent a figure than Prince Albert pronounced him "a second Elijah."

Ironically, Mendelssohn was attracted to the story of Elijah and his stern love for his people, in part, precisely because he did identify with the fiery Hebrew prophet. Despite all the adulation showered on him since childhood, when his gifts as a prodigy regularly invited comparisons to Mozart, Mendelssohn was a remarkably self-critical composer, often troubled by agonizing doubts about his creative work. Indeed, he had come to find many contemporary musical trends to be symptomatic of a larger emptiness within contemporary society that led to intense feelings of disillusionment. Elijah provided Mendelssohn with a vehicle to reaffirm his faith in the elevating power of art while at the same time pressing his imagination to its limits. The effort of creating this summum opus literally helped drive the composer into a state of physical exhaustion. Overworked and overcome by a sense of bleakly impenetrable solitude, he would collapse in a series of fatal strokes-only 38 years old-a little more than a year after achieving the most glorious acclaim of his career. Elijah became, after the fact, his Requiem as well.

 "I imagined Elijah as a grand, mighty prophet, of the kind we might require in our own day," the composer wrote while the idea was just beginning to percolate, well before he arrived at the point of settling down to serious work on the score. "Energetic and zealous, but also stern, angry, brooding," Mendelssohn continued, "in striking contrast to the rabble you find both in court and in the populace-indeed, up against the whole world-yet borne aloft on angels' wings."

Reviving the Oratorio

Mendelssohn's epoch-making revival of J.S. Bach's Saint Matthew Passion in 1829 might be seen as his first step in reclaiming the genre of the oratorio-and with it, a profound respect for the legacy of past composers-for an era that was becoming obsessed with novelty for its own sake. His own oratorios show how Mendelssohn's role as a preserver of tradition intersects in fascinating ways with his identity as a creative artist. Oratorios-the word comes from the Italian for a hall of prayer- originated in Italy around the same time as opera; the genre similarly involves a kind of musical dramatic narrative, though one performed without costumes and scenery and frequently setting stories drawn from biblical sources. In fact the earliest examples of oratorio (by composers like the Roman chapelmaster Giacomo Carissimi from the 17th century) were modest, relatively brief chamber dramas with a religious function. Clearly intended to foster meditation, they were even used during liturgical rituals in the Lenten season.

Although the oratorio is sometimes thought of as a static genre in which the chorus assumes a prominent role, it has actually evolved, much like its cousin opera, to encompass a wide range of approaches-right down to our own era, from Osvaldo Golijov's La Pasión según San Marcos to John Adams's El Niño (and its soon-to-be-premiered sequel, The Gospel According to the Other Mary).  In the Protestant tradition, the so-called "Passion oratorio" represented by Bach's two surviving Passions were intended, like earlier Catholic examples of the genre, for liturgical performance, though by this point the oratorio' had expanded to monumental proportions.

Meanwhile, in his adopted home of England, Handel was soon to pioneer a thoroughly secular variant of the genre-one that was essentially a substitute for the far pricier proposition of staged opera, which had in any case rapidly fallen out of fashion in London. While his oratorio topics were frequently drawn from the Bible (or sources based on it), Handel's occasional use of librettos based on classical myth and even history emphasizes the fact that the oratorio had developed into a form of secular entertainment: even Messiah was introduced in a secular context.

Over half a century later, during his sojourn in London, Haydn found himself profoundly affected by the still-vibrant tradition of Handelian oratorio he encountered in performance. Inspired to compose his own towering contributions to the genre (The Creation and The Seasons), Haydn ushered the genre into the 19th century, bringing it renewed prestige. Beethoven soon followed suit with his (now seldom-performed) Christ on the Mount of Olives; the later Missa Solemnis can be said also to have been conceived on the expansive scale of the oratorio. And Mendelssohn's contemporaries tried out variants of their own, from Schumann's Paradise and the Peri to Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ.

But it was the triumphant reception enjoyed by Elijah that anointed Mendelssohn as the true successor to the Handelian tradition in the eyes of his contemporaries-and among later generations in the English-speaking world above all. Mendelssohn had scored his first success with an oratorio of his own when he presented Saint Paul at the Lower Rhenish Music Festival in 1836. Saint Paul similarly made a tremendous impact from the start. Premiering in England the following year, it prompted a leading critic to rave: "We should be disposed, unhesitatingly, to rank it next to the immortal works of Handel." Critics also noted the heritage of Bach through Saint Paul's prominent use of chorales and the like. For its part, Elijah would go on even more strikingly to invoke the Handelian model.

Genesis of a Prophet's Story

Following the enthusiastic praise heaped on his debut oratorio, Mendelssohn almost immediately determined to write another. The New Testament had served as the basis for Saint Paul, and Mendelssohn even contemplated the figure of Saint Peter for his next oratorio, but he settled instead on the Old Testament story of the prophet Elijah (from the 9th century BCE) as recounted chiefly in the Books of Kings. Elijah went through a long period of gestation, however, as the composer, also a highly sought-after conductor and teacher, became entangled in his many obligations; his decision to marry Cécile Jeanrenaud in 1837 brought further immediate considerations to tend to.

Meanwhile, details with the libretto still needed to be hammered out, and so the project was set aside. Nearly a decade passed before Mendelssohn began composing Elijah in earnest, though his letters periodically refer to the theme and how to approach the text. The spur came in 1845, in the form of an invitation extended to the Anglophile composer-a familiar of the royal family who was in turn especially loved by the English-to present a new oratorio for the following year's Birmingham Festival by its director, Joseph Moore. Mendelssohn completed his score with just two weeks to spare and then-ever dissatisfied-set about making substantial revisions immediately after the premiere, triumph though it was.

It wasn't only the prophet's message-his steadfast resistance to empty idols-that appealed to Mendelssohn: He was also electrified by the musical and dramatic possibilities contained in the terse but wonder-filled narrative of Elijah. Indeed, in the first stages of thinking out the idea, when he hoped to enlist his friend Karl Klingemann (the two had had memorable adventures in years past exploring Britain), Mendelssohn was clearly conceiving of the oratorio as a "substitute" opera: "It seems to me as if all the German theaters were at the present moment in such bad condition that one cannot reckon on a good performance anywhere... [but] that I must write operas is an idea I cannot give up. The choral societies, on the other hand, are just now good, and long for new music; and I should like to give them something that would please me better than my Saint Paul does."

But Klingemann ended up contributing only a sketch before losing enthusiasm. The composer then turned to another friend from childhood, the Lutheran pastor Julius Schubring, who had collaborated with him on the libretto for Saint Paul. "It appears to me that the dramatic element should predominate, as it should in all Old Testament subjects, Moses, perhaps, excepted," emphasized Mendelssohn. "The personages should act and speak as if they were living beings-for Heaven's sake, let them not be a musical picture, but a real world, such as you find in every chapter of the Old Testament.... 

It's worth noting that around the time he was engrossed in the composition of Elijah, Mendelssohn had recently been deeply impressed by the scope of Handel's oratorios as a result of his work preparing an edition of the latter's miracle-saturated Israel in Egypt (commissioned by London's Handel Society). Moreover, his enthusiasm for the artistry of soprano Jenny Lind, the "Swedish nightingale," whom he invited to Leipzig to perform in 1845 and with whom he developed an intimate (though most likely platonic) relationship, reignited his desire to write opera. After Elijah had been unveiled, Mendelssohn considered the possibility of an opera based on Shakespeare's The Tempest (a dream he had nurtured years earlier) and even sketched music for an operatic take on the siren-like Lorelei from German folklore that would star Jenny Lind.  

Saint Paul can, on one level, be viewed as Mendelssohn's allegory for his family's conversion from Judaism to Protestant Christianity when the composer was a boy. But Elijah finds him exploring his Jewish roots with fresh intensity. It represents part of a larger quest in which, according to conductor-scholar Leon Botstein, Mendelssohn was carrying on the work of his grandfather Moses, who became celebrated as "the German Socrates." This great philosopher of the Jewish Enlightenment (also known as the Haskalah) "focused on the compatibilities between religion and eighteenth-century rationalism," writes Botstein. Following this model, Felix Mendelssohn was "syncretic, not sectarian. His Christian faith focused on the extent to which Christianity was a universalization of Judaism." 

Mendelssohn also left behind fragments of a third oratorio, posthumously titled Christus, which was likely intended to form a complementary counterpart to Elijah. Biographer R. Larry Todd observes that this may have been part of a grander oratorio project meant to encompass the life and Passion of Jesus, the Resurrection, and the Last Judgment. "By forging links in Elijah between [his Jewish] identity and an adopted Lutheran worldview," observes Todd, "Felix in a way continued the project of assimilation advanced by his grandfather Moses...." He adds that "in a sense, then, the dual perspective emerging in Elijah completed Felix's life work."

Elijah's Structure and Music

For his part, Schubring attempted to interpolate his own Christological agenda into Elijah by suggesting the introduction of New Testament figures near the end of the work, along with other sermonizing elements. But Mendelssohn held fast to his vision of an essentially dramatic, in-the-moment narrative focused on the figure of the prophet and his effect on those around him. He also wanted to forego the "epic" form of an intervening narrator. The libretto they devised threads passages from various sources in Hebrew Scripture around the dramatic arc of Elijah's career. Mendelssohn actually composed the work in German-as Elias, the German version of "Elijah"-but it has maintained a dual performance history in both German and English. Not only was it premiered in English: for the occasion, Mendelssohn secured the help of William Bartholomew to prepare an English version of the text. Bartholomew, a fellow composer and writer (who, like Alexander Borodin, made his living as a chemist), was well familiar with Mendelssohn's work, having adapted other pieces, and even suggested some of the unusual dramaturgy of the opening sequence. Together they consulted closely over matters of prosody. As a kind of corollary to Luther's German translation used for Elias, Bartholomew drew on the King James Bible.  

Elijah's narrative unfolds as a sequence of independent events musically laid out in individual scenes comprising choruses, arias, and recitatives. Each of the oratorio's two parts builds to a distinct climax. Part One, which dramatizes events described in chapters 17 and 18 of the First Book of Kings, begins in medias res: Elijah forebodingly prophesies a devastating drought as punishment for the people's worship of idols. (Ahab, King of Israel, had married the Phoenician Jezebel, who persuaded him to allow the building of temples to the pagan god Baal-actually, a catch-all name for any of the pagan gods, whose worship was forbidden by the First Commandment.) The prophet then goes into hiding in the desert and revives the lifeless son of a widow who has sheltered him. Three years later, he returns to confront King Ahab and stages a showdown between the Baal-worshippers and "the Lord God of Abraham." The first part reaches its miraculous climax when Elijah's prayer for the return of life-restoring rain is answered. 

Part Two shows the prophet again confronting the ruling powers as Queen Jezebel rouses the people against him. He flees once more to the wilderness and faces despair but, in another powerful climax, is granted a vision of the Lord. Elijah continues to fulfill his mission and finally ascends to heaven in a chariot of fire. In the concluding numbers, suggested parallels between Elijah and the future Messiah become especially apparent (much as Elijah is figured throughout as, in some ways, a revenant Moses freeing his people from the slavery of idolatry).  

The singers actually take on the roles of specific characters, at times "playing" more than one. For example, the bass soloist is Elijah, while the alto represents both an angel and the idol-mongering Queen Jezebel; the tenor is the palace steward Obadiah and (briefly) Ahab, and the soprano soloist-whose vocal character Mendelssohn originally tailored for Jenny Lind, though she was unable to sing in the premiere-portrays the Widow as well as the inspiring summons whose call opens Part Two. Meanwhile, the chorus variously represents the straying Israelites, the priests of Baal (Jezebel's imported deities), the courtiers, and bands of angels; it also comments (as in a classical chorus) on the miracles of divine intervention. 

Mendelssohn's oratorios, to be sure, show a profound affinity for his predecessors, whom the composer in a sense treats as artistic prophets. As mentioned, Elijah is more akin to the dramatic, secular, all-but-operatic Handelian model than its Bach-inspired predecessor, Saint Paul, although it certainly pays homage to the Leipzig master as well. Also figuring into the mix is the imaginative tone painting Haydn developed for his oratorios. Yet as you listen closely and pay attention to the strikingly innovative touches in this score, the standard, hackneyed image of Mendelssohn as a "reactionary" composer dissolves away. Take the extraordinary opening gesture: an austerely scored brief prologue which depicts Elijah predicting the doom to come. Only after this dramatic plunge into the story does Mendelssohn proceed with an Overture-here a tone poem depicting the people's suffering, figured through the device of a fugue, which spills over directly into the opening chorus. The Prologue also introduces two key musical ideas that will recur: a rising triad (here in D minor) that represents the divinity, and a sinister descending figure outlining the unstable tritone to indicate the curse brought on by the people's inconstancy. 

The score abounds in marvelous pictorial moments, as Mendelssohn exploits his large-scale orchestral and choral forces. (The Birmingham premiere called for close to 300 choristers.) Of particular note are the descent of fire during the contest of the gods, the onrush of water at the conclusion of Part One-with the sense of pent-up expectation so memorably evoked by the boy's declarations that he sees no sign of the promised miracle-and the whirlwind of fire for Elijah's ascent to heaven in the second part. Mendelssohn heightens the impact of these decisive moments through his dramatic use of suspense, whether in the savage silences following the frenzied invocations to Baal, or the patient but slightly anxious repetitions as Elijah sends the boy to scout for rain. The oratorio is also structured by patterns of powerful contrasts and echoes. After the collective despair of the opening, Mendelssohn elaborates a moving scena of the Widow's individual suffering, the revival of her boy leading to restoration of faith. 

Or course the individual angle comes most clearly into focus in Mendelssohn's multi-faceted portrayal of the prophet himself. In contrast to the upright confidence, even bravado, displayed in Part One-the Handel-flavored No. 17, "Ist nicht des Herrn Wort wie ein Feuer " ("Is Not His Word Like a Fire?"), for example-Part Two depicts Elijah's inner life, culminating in the dark night of No. 26, "Es ist Genug!" ("It Is Enough!"). Setting one of Schubring's "sermonizing" texts, the aria is modeled in part after the pivotal "Es ist vollbracht" ("It Is Finished") from Bach's Saint John Passion and is similar in its emotional resonance and use of obbligato string accompaniment (cello here). 

Mendelssohn then constructs a splendid sequence to show Elijah emerging from this point of absolute dejection to the sacred epiphany described in No. 34, "Der Herr ging vorüber" ("Behold, God the Lord Passed By!"). This was indeed the very passage that, according to the composer's longstanding friend Ferdinand Hiller, had originally given Mendelssohn his own creative epiphany: "Would that not be splendid for an oratorio?" Hiller recalled Mendelssohn exclaiming. Elijah finally arrives at the opposite extreme from the gloom-ridden, dark music that opened the work as the final chorus resounds with the D major fugal affirmation of "Alsdann wird euer Licht hervorbrechen" ( "And Then Shall Your Light Break Forth"). 

With Elijah, Mendelssohn gave monumental form to his spiritual and artistic preoccupations alike. No wonder that the eloquence of such arias as No. 31, "Sei stille dem Herrn" ("O Rest in the Lord")-which the composer actually debated cutting from the published score-or the serenely reassuring double-quartet in No. 7, "Denn er hat seinen Engeln" ("For He shall give his angels charge over thee"), spoke so consolingly to the Victorian era, in which science and relentless material "progress" were unraveling old certainties. 

Not everyone, of course, shared the enthusiasm lavished by such fans as Prince Albert, who praised "the Noble Artist, who, surrounded by the Baal-like worship of debased art, has been able...to preserve...the worship of true art." As commentator Michael Steinberg has pointed out, a young Walt Whitman covered the American premiere of Elijah in November 1847 in New York. Whitman remarked that Mendelssohn's music, "judged by the rules of art, is of the highest importance, but it is clearly too elaborately scientific for the public ear. It is, besides, too heavy in its general character and wants relief of a proper proportion of lightness and melody...." More scathingly, George Bernard Shaw later scorned the British public for failing to register "the great gulf that lies between the true religious sentiment and our delight in Mendelssohn's exquisite prettiness" and for reveling in the feelings that "in its callow youth" had inspired the adoration of "beautiful girls as angels." 

"In the critical tradition," writes R. Larry Todd, "Elijah has thus traversed, pendulum-like, the vast, uneven terrain between these extremes" (Prince Albert versus Shaw, that is).  Distant as our own sensibilities are from those of Mendelssohn's original Victorian audience-and pace Shaw-in its finest moments Elijah shares the immediacy and power to move us found in other oratorios that have stood the test of time.