Program Notes for the June 1, 2003 Concert
by Donald Draganski
On any list of musical prodigies, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) stands near the top of that select roster. His early mastery of composition produced two indisputable masterpieces — the String Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream —, both written before his seventeenth birthday. Having reached this extraordinarily high creative plateau at such an early age, he continued to compose many works that are equal to, though rarely surpassing, these early pieces.
He was born to an extremely distinguished family. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, rose from poverty to a career as a distinguished philosopher and writer of unusual brilliance and humanity. Moses’s son, Abraham, took up a successful career in banking, thereby placing the family on a solid financial footing. In 1816 Abraham had his children baptized as Christians. (His brother, Jacob, persuaded the family to append the name “Bartholdy,” to distinguish the Christian Mendelssohns from those who remained faithful to their Jewish heritage.) Abraham wistfully observed that “Once I was the son of my father; and now, I am the father of my son,” viewing himself as an anonymous hyphen linking two famous generations. It was in this comfortable and loving (though highly disciplined) household that Felix and his older sister Fanny were able to develop their extraordinary gifts — thus proving that economic privation and suffering are not always necessary spurs for genius to blossom.
By the time he was in his twenties, Mendelssohn was already enjoying an international reputation as a composer, pianist and conductor. The warm reception which greeted the composer’s oratorio St. Paul in England in 1837 was a clear indication that the appetite for oratorios was, a century after Handel’s death, still strong among the English. Mendelssohn had planned to write several more oratorios with an eye to pleasing his English audience; St. Peter and Saul were each considered and rejected as suitable subjects before he decided on the prophet Elijah as the central figure for his next oratorio. (He had also started work on another major choral piece, Christus, based on the life of Christ, but his early death prevented him from writing more than a few isolated numbers.) Although Elijah was already in Mendelssohn’s mind as early as 1837, He began work only in 1845 after he had received the requisite text from the poet Julius Schubring. Within seven months Mendelssohn completed the entire score. Always a rapid worker, the composer took great pains with the score as evidenced in a letter he wrote to one of his colleagues in Vienna;
I sit, up to my ears, in my Elijah, and if it turns out only half as good as I often think it will, I shall be glad indeed! .. I like nothing more than to spend the whole day in writing the notes down, and I often come so late to dinner that the children come to my room to fetch me by force.
The Text of the Oratorio is drawn for the most part from the First Book of Kings. Ahab the king has married Jezebel who has persuaded him to build a temple to Baal. The Oratorio opens as Elijah, a champion of Jehovah, declares that God will punish the apostate king and his people by wreaking a drought upon the land. The overture that follows is intended to represent the passing of three years of famine and destitution. The people cry for mercy but Elijah insists that there shall be no relief until the people abandon their idols for the one, true God. The prophet then goes to Sidon where he is befriended by a poor widow whose meagre supply of food is miraculously increased. When the widow’s son dies, Elijah restores the child to life. The rest of Part One describes the contest between Jehovah and Baal. The priests of Baal cavort, rave and mutilate themselves in a futile effort to gain the attention of their god. Elijah then demonstrates Jehovah’s power by calling down from heaven a fire that consumes the Baal’s altar. The false priests are slain and, after the Israelites have properly atoned for their idolatry, the long awaited rains arrive and bring an end to the drought.
In Part Two Jezebel threatens Elijah with death. The prophet flees into the desert at Horeb where, after a dramatic manifestation of wind and earthquakes, he hears the “still, small voice” of God telling him that he must return and continue in his battle against the false gods. At the end of his life Elijah is taken up into heaven by a fiery chariot. The Oratorio closes with verses variously taken from Isaiah and Malachi praising the glory of God and his servant Elijah.
The composer was evidently pleased by the reception his work received at its 1846 premiere which he conducted in Birmingham, England. In a letter to his brother Paul, Mendelssohn wrote the following:
No work of mine ever went so admirably at its first performance, nor was received with such enthusiasm by both the musicians and the audience. It was quite evident at the very first rehearsal in London that they liked it, and liked to sing and play it; but I confess, I was far from anticipating that it would have such vigor and attraction at the first performance. Had you only been there! During the whole hour and a half that it lasted, the big hall with its two thousand people and the large orchestra all so concentrated on the subject in question, that not the slightest sound could be heard from the audience, and I was able to sway at will the enormous mass of orchestra and chorus and organ ... No less than four choruses and four arias were encored, and in the whole first movement there was not a single mistake. As I said before, had you only been there!
The effort expended in writing a piece of such scope, combined with his shock over the death of his beloved sister, Fanny, hastened his end; he died of a stroke fifteen months later, in November of 1847, just three months short of his 39th birthday.
Whether Elijah is a German or English work is a moot issue, for Mendelssohn had already made arrangements for an English translation while the work was still in its planning stage. Mendelssohn’s popularity among the English was always very high. (The composer Hector Berlioz once waggishly commented that the English looked on Mendelssohn as a “Handel-and-a-half.”) Elijah never achieved any real lasting success in Germany which lacks a strong amateur choral tradition comparable to that found in England. However the work continues to hold a firm place in the choral repertoire of English-speaking countries. The North Shore Choral Society last performed Elijah on May 19, 1996.
Copyright © 2003 by Donald Draganski