Felix Mendelssohn Elijah: Playing the Prophet
By Thomas May
“Never was there a more complete triumph—never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art.” So reported The Times of London after Elijah’s premiere on August 26, 1846. Its overwhelming success was of the sort a composer could only pray for—on the surface, another confirmation of the widespread myth of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) as a happy exception to the misunderstood, maladjusted artist. No less prominent a figure than Prince Albert pronounced him “a second Elijah.”
The irony is that Mendelssohn was attracted to the story of the fiery Hebrew prophet in part because he did identify with Elijah. Despite all the adulation showered on him since his childhood as a prodigy, the highly self-critical composer hardly basked in an attitude of untroubled complacency. Mendelssohn had come to experience intense disillusionment with his society, whose musical trends he found symptomatic of its emptiness. Elijah provided a vehicle to reaffirm his faith in the elevating power of art while at the same time pushing his imagination to its limits. It also drove Mendelssohn to a state of physical exhaustion. Overworked and feeling bleakly alone, he would collapse in a series of fatal strokes—age 38—only a little over a year after this most glorious acclaim of his career.
“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 still percolating—years before he arrived at the point of composing the score. “Energetic and zealous, but also stern, angry, brooding,” he 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.”
With his epoch-making revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829, Mendelssohn began to reclaim the oratorio for an era that was becoming obsessed with novelty for its own sake. The genre is one where his legacy as a preserver of tradition intersected with Mendelssohn the creative artist. His own first oratorio, St. Paul, appeared in 1836. Following its positive reception, Mendelssohn almost immediately set to work on plans for a new oratorio. The gestation turned out to be unusually long, however, in part because of his preoccupation with details of the libretto. Mendelssohn only began composing Elijah in earnest when he was spurred by a commission for a new oratorio in 1845 for the upcoming Birmingham Festival (he had been lionized by the English public for some time). Mendelssohn completed his score with only two weeks to spare and then set about making substantial revisions immediately after the premiere, still unsatisfied.
St. Paul could be viewed on one level as an allegory of his family’s conversion from Judaism to Protestant Christianity when Mendelssohn was a boy. With Elijah he explores his Jewish roots, part of a larger quest where conductor-scholar Leon Botstein sees Mendelssohn continuing the work of his grandfather Moses, who became celebrated as “the German Socrates.” This great philosopher of the Jewish Enlightenment, says Botstein, “focused on the compatibilities between religion and 18th-century rationalism.” For his part, the composer was “syncretic, not sectarian. His Christian faith focused on the extent to which Christianity was a universalization of Judaism.” Mendelssohn left behind sketches for a third oratorio, called Christus—apparently intended to be paired with Elijah—before his premature death.
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 given in 1 and 2 Kings. “I am anxious to do full justice to the dramatic element,” he wrote to his librettist Julius Schubring. A Lutheran minister and long-time friend of Mendelssohn, Schubring had also crafted the libretto for St. Paul. He brought his own agenda to Elijah—essentially wanting to take it more in the direction of a pious sermon. Fortunately, Mendelssohn vigorously contributed his ideas about the text, insisting on the importance of its dramatic shape. (He composed the work in German—in which it is known as Elias—but immediately had William Bartholomew translate it meticulously into the English of the King James Bible for the first performance.)
As a result, Elijah avoids the traditional device of an interlinking narrator in favor of a more directly dramatic approach. Schubring and Mendelssohn interspersed passages from other sources in Hebrew Scripture, arranged around the dramatic arc of Elijah’s career. The singers actually adopt the roles of specific characters, at times “playing” more than one. The bass soloist is Elijah, while the alto, for example, represents both an angel and the idol-mongering Queen Jezebel; the chorus embodies the Israelites as well as the priests of Baal (Jezebel’s imported deities) but also comments on the miracles of divine intervention.
The “plot” unfolds as a sequence of events structured to build two distinct climaxes, one for each half of the bipartite oratorio. Part One begins as Elijah prophesies a devastating drought as punishment for the people’s acceptance of idols. 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 King Ahab and stages a showdown between the Baal-worshippers and “the Lord God of Abraham.” The first part reaches its climax when Elijah’s prayer for the return of life-restoring rain is answered. Part Two finds the prophet again confronting the ruling powers as Queen Jezebel rouses the people against him. He flees once more to the wilderness and faces abject despair but, in another powerful climax, is granted a vision of the Lord. He continues to fulfill his mission and finally ascends to heaven in a chariot of fire. The concluding numbers suggest parallels between Elijah and the future Messiah.
Mendelssohn’s oratorios are inscribed by a profound affinity for his predecessors. St. Paul, with its prominent chorales and fugal textures, is clearly Bach centered, while Elijah—although it contains several homages to that master as well as to the imaginative tone painting of Haydn—is more akin to the dramatic Handelian model. But the standard view of Mendelssohn as “conservative” tends to desensitize contemporary listeners to the truly innovative touches in this score. Take the extraordinary opening gesture—an austerely scored brief prologue which begins in medias res, with 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 which spills 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 to indicate the curse brought on by their inconstancy.
The score abounds in marvelous pictorial opportunities drawing on large-scale orchestral and choral forces: the descent of fire in the contest of the gods, the onrush of water at the conclusion of Part One, or the whirlwind of fire in Elijah’s ascent to heaven. Mendelssohn heightens their impact with a dramatic use of suspense. Notice the savage silences after the frenzied invocations to Baal, for example, or the patient but slightly anxious repetitions as Elijah sends the boy to scout for rain. The oratorio is also patterned after powerful contrasts and echoes. After the collective despair of the opening Mendelssohn paints a moving scena of the widow’s individual suffering, the revival of her boy leading to a restoration of faith.
The individual angle of course comes most clearly into focus in Mendelssohn’s multi-faceted portrayal of the prophet himself. In contrast to the upright confidence, even bravado, of Part One—the Handel-flavored “Is Not His Word Like Fire?” for example—Part Two depicts Elijah’s inner life, culminating in the dark night of “It Is Enough” (patterned after an aria from Bach’s St. John Passion). Mendelssohn then builds in a splendid sequence from this point of utter dejection to the sacred epiphany of “Behold, God the Lord Passed By!” At the opposite end of the gloom-ridden, dark music that opened the oratorio, Elijah reaches a securely serene conclusion in D Major with the chorus “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 “O Rest in the Lord” spoke so consolingly to the Victorian era, in which science and relentless material “progress” were unraveling old certainties. Yet however distant from our own sensibilities the reactions of those original audiences seem, Mendelssohn’s achievement—so far-reaching in scope—retains its immediacy and power to move us.
Thomas May is the author of Decoding Wagner and editor of The John Adams Reader. He writes frequently about music and theater.
Program notes are posted online at LAMC.org approximately two weeks before each concert.