On Mendelssohn’s Elijah, by R. Larry Todd

Few compositions document as compellingly as Elijah the shifting critical reception accorded Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) during the past one hundred and fifty years. At the English premiere, heard at the Birmingham Musical Festival in 1846, Elijah was hailed as an undisputed masterpiece; since then it has remained a staple part of the oratorio repertory, rivaled in English-speaking realms only by Handel’s Messiah. But, like the inevitable swing of a pendulum, Mendelssohn's enshrinement in the canon of “great” compos­ers precipitated a counter-reaction. First, there was Richard Wag­ner’s notorious anti-Semitic attack in the anonymously published article “On Judaism in Music” (1850). And in the closing decades of the cen­tury, there was George Bernard Shaw’s criticism of Mendelssohn's “kid glove gentility.” In 1847, Prince Albert had lionized Mendelssohn as a prophetic artist-priest contending with false artistic idols; now, toward the end of the century, Shaw reversed the metaphor by accusing Mendelssohn (and Victorian society) of displaying a sanc­timonious sentimentality.

Based largely on the Old Testament account in I and II Kings, supplemented by texts culled from the Psalms, Isaiah and other Old Testament books, and selected verses from St. Matthew, the oratorio falls in two parts: Part I includes an unnumbered In­troduction and Overture and Nos. 1-20; Part II, Nos. 21-43. Each half is organized around three events in the prophet’s life; in Part I, after the introductory announcement of the drought, Elijah’s miraculous revival of the widow’s son, his confrontation with the worshippers of Baal and the lifting of the drought; in Part II, his confrontation with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, his period in the wilderness and his jour­ney to Mt. Horeb and ascension to heaven. Musically, the oratorio consists of mixtures of recitatives, arias and choral movements, many of them stitched together to form extended sections of continuous music; indeed, Elijah represents Mendelssohn's most ambitious attempt to compose on a large scale.

Part I forms an imposing, highly structured complex, with recurring motives and a clear tonal plan (centered on the keys of D minor and E-flat major). Two primary motives, which return melodically and harmonically in various ways throughout the oratorio, appear in Elijah’s opening recitative: a majestic, rising triadic figure associated with the prophet as servant of the Lord and a harsh series of descending dissonances underscored by the brass, associated with the curse-like pronouncement, “there shall not be dew nor rain these years.” Directly after the recitative we hear the orchestral overture, a fugue whose fan-like subject con­tains the dissonant interval of the curse. Depicting the tribulations suffered during the drought, the fugue unfolds as a series of inten­sifying gestures: first, a rhythmic shift to faster note values, then a contrapuntal maneuver—the use of mirror inversion—by which the subject is turned upside-down. To complete this opening musi­cal complex, the overture proceeds directly into the climactic opening chorus (No.1), designed as a parallel fugal lament. In No. 2, the chorus of the people intones a chant-like figure (“Lord, bow thine ear to our pray’r!”) as two solo sopranos sing a suppliant duet. Following the lyrical aria of Obadiah (No.4), an agitated chorus (No.5) revives the curse motive before yielding to a calm­ing, chorale-like passage for “His mercies on thousands fall.” In No.7 Mendelssohn sets two verses from Psalm 91 for eight-part chorus and orchestra. This chorus and that of No.9 (“Blessed are the men who fear Him”) provide a frame for No. 8, cast as a dramatic duet in E minor be­tween Elijah and the widow.

The midpoint of Part I (No.10) is appropriately marked by a return of the opening measures of the Introduction, now transposed up a step, as Elijah announces his intention to present himself to King Ahab and to confront the priests of Baal. In a succession of choruses (Nos. 11-13) the Baal worshippers unsuccessfully appeal to their god for a sacrificial fire. Their plea is made more intense, first by the use of faster tempos, and second by the use of successively higher keys. In contrast, Elijah invokes the “Lord God of Abraham” in a soothing aria (No. 14); this is joined to No. 15, an exquisite chorale setting of some psalm verses scored for chorus with light orchestral accompaniment. The fire of the Lord now appears in No.16, a powerful chorus that ends broadly in another chorale-like setting. The fire is vividly suggested in Elijah’s virtuosic aria No. 17 with examples of word painting strikingly reminiscent of Handel’s Messiah. Elijah’s final act in Part I is to lift the drought, and this is dramatically accomplished in No. 19. Scored in the low, dark registers of the orchestra, Elijah’s imploration is set against the terse response of a child soprano, who looks out, initially in vain, for evidence of gathering clouds. As the inundation approaches, the entire chorus erupts into the triumphant No. 20, introduced with the rising triadic figure, first heard in the Introduction and then revived in No. 10; its return here gives an added measure of unity to Part I.

Two numbers serve to introduce Part II. The moving minor-keyed soprano aria, No. 21, includes a majestic section in the parallel major key which gives way to a rousing march-like chorus (No. 22). At its concluding text, “Thy help is near,” Mendelssohn introduces a variant of the curse motive, now smoothed out in the bass to pro­ject stabilizing, consonant fourths. The next three numbers form a continuous complex for Elijah’s confrontation with Queen Jezebel. As she arouses the people to seize Elijah, the dissonant language of the curse is restored, and its effect spills over into an angry chorus (No. 24). Elijah’s companion Obadiah then exhorts the prophet to journey to the wilderness (No. 25); this recitative is con­structed to elide with Elijah’s great aria “It is enough, O Lord, now take away my life” (No. 26). Here Mendelssohn reveals himself a student of Bach; with its low tessitura, accompanying cello and contrasting middle section, the aria is clearly indebted to “Es ist vollbracht” in the St. John Passion. Two choral numbers, with texts drawn from psalm verses, round out the scene in the wilder­ness (Nos. 28 and 29). Both are in D major, the concluding key of the oratorio. Especially effective is No. 28, an a cappella trio of an­gels, with its simple, yet beautiful, chordal sonorities in a high, translucent register.

No fewer than nine numbers (Nos. 30-38) treat Elijah’s journey to Mt. Horeb, the passing by there of the Lord and Elijah’s ascension to heaven. No. 30, a recitative shared by an angel and Elijah, re­vives the middle portion of “It is enough” (No. 26) and the disso­nant interval of the curse. After the angel’s assuring aria “O rest in the Lord” (No. 31), there is a contrapuntal chorus in imitative style. Another recall occurs in Elijah’s next recitative (No. 33), which quotes the lament subject from No.1, now heard after Elijah sings “My soul is thirsting for Thee, as a thirsty land.” No. 34, describing the passing by of the Lord, marks the spiritual and artistic summit of the work. Commencing with an agitated, rising figure, the movement reveals with rich musical imagery and strict canonic choral writing three natural wonders—tempest, earthquake and fire. None of these encompasses the Lord, whose presence is felt rather in a “still, small voice”; here the music turns to a hushed, pianissimo passage in E major. Two bright choruses (Nos. 35 and 36) now revive the triadic figure associated with Elijah’s opening music: in No. 35 (solo quartet and chorus), the trumpet intones this figure, which is then taken over by the tenors and basses in No. 36. Elijah’s final aria (No. 37) is built upon a bass line whose con­tours offer a euphonious transformation of the curse motive (its dissonances are here replaced by consonances). The ascension is accomplished in a powerful chorus (No. 38), filled with a rising triadic bass line and colorful modulations to depict the fiery chariot and whirlwind. The concluding epilogue (Nos. 39-42) includes passages from Isaiah prophesying the coming of the Messiah. Here Mendels­sohn’s creative energies lag somewhat, but there are inspired moments. No. 41 “But the Lord from the north hath raised one” is initially given in unison by the tenors and basses against a subdued orchestral backdrop. For the concluding Nos. 42-43, Mendelssohn writes a triumphant fugue, carefully calculated to offer a final resolution to the story of Elijah. Thus, the subject contains rising interlocked consonances in contrast to the descending interlocked dissonances of the Introduction. At the end, the Amen is sung against one final statement of the curse, whose dissonance is now compellingly resolved.

How to interpret Mendelssohn's Elijah has prompted a fair amount of discussion. The grandson of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786, a German Jew who rose from the ghetto of Dessau to become a world-renowned philosopher of the Enlightenment), Felix was baptized at age seven and became a faithfully practicing Protestant. That the composer late in his short, meteoric life created Elijah on an Old Testament subject after first producing in 1836 St. Paul on a New Testament subject is sometimes seen as a reaffirmation of his Judaic roots. Thus, when Elijah was performed in 1937 in a Berlin synagogue, its members, as Leon Botstein has observed, “believed they were hearing a Jewish work written by a German Jew affirming the greatness of Judaism.” But there is strong evidence that Mendelssohn sought to interpret the Old Testament story in a Christological sense. Several parts of the libretto could be viewed as strengthening parallels between the Old and New Testaments: Obadiah’s call to the people to return to God (No. 3) and John the Baptist’s call to repentance; Elijah’s raising of the widow’s son (No. 8) and Jesus’s similar miracle in Luke 7; Elijah’s journey to the wilderness (Nos. 25-29) and Jesus’s prayer vigil at Gethsemane; and others, leading, of course, to the culminating idea of ascension. There is, too, the citation from the parable of the weeds (Matthew 13) in the tenor aria (No. 39) sung after Elijah’s ascension, and the final chorus, the subject of which is patently derived from the “Amen” fugue of Handel’s Messiah, an oratorio which also draws upon Old Testament prophecies. Perhaps the true greatness of Elijah may be found in its ability to explore the manifold connections between the composer’s Jewish ancestry and adopted Lutheran world view. In that sense, the dual vision of Elijah completed the composer's life’s work.

Copyright © by R. Larry Todd, 2004; Copyright © by Carus Verlag, Stuttgart, 1995
Used with Permission.

The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir celebrates its 80th Anniversary on Friday, March 17, 2017 at 8:00 p.m. with a performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah. Joining the Symphonic Choir is the Indianapolis Children’s Choir and Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. For more information click here.