by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Eric Werner, in his biographical study of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) and his works, concludes his analysis of Elijah by proclaiming it the greatest oratorio of the 19th century. In its best numbers, he notes, Elijah rises to realms of awe which are no longer accessible to rational language. In this respect it stands on the lonely heights near to the creations of Bach and Handel.
Mendelssohn himself, in an enthusiastic letter to his brother Paul after Elijah's first performance in Birmingham, England, August 26, 1846, summed up its impact on audience and musician alike. His assessment of the performance forecast its enduring appeal. "No work of mine ever went so admirably ... or was received with such enthusiasm by both the musicians and the audience as this oratorio. It was quite evident at the first rehearsal in London that they liked it. But I own I was far from anticipating that it would acquire such fresh vigor and impetus at the first performance. During the whole of the two and half hours that it lasted, the 2,000 people in the large hall and the great orchestra concentrated so completely that not the slightest sound was heard, so that I could at pleasure sway the enormous orchestra, organ accompaniments, and choir."
From Bach and Handel, Mendelssohn had mastered the art of choral composition. Indeed, all commentators indicate that the enduring strength and power of this oratorio lies precisely in its great choruses. The use of fluid fugue passages enabled Mendelssohn to develop and build up Elijah's striking climaxes. On the other hand, the melting young English tenor he alludes to in his letter illustrated those tendencies in his work which subsequently gave rise quite inaccurately to those recurring strictures aimed as his "sweet sentimentality.”
Today after a century and a half, our less fervid and presumably more objective evaluation of Mendelssohn's work is revealed in Karl Heinz Kohler's studied view in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Although he grew up surrounded by Romantic influences, his inspiration was essentially classical and his musical ideals were embodied in the works of Bach, Handel and Mozart, rather than those of his contemporaries. He was a Romantic chiefly in his skillful use of literary and other extra-musical stimuli, and his Classical inclinations led him to embody these in music of traditional form and elegance, expressed with individual melodic grace and brilliance."
The genesis of Elijah began in 1836 shortly after the great success of the oratorio St. Paul. After failing to accept several unsatisfactory librettos, Mendelssohn turned to the Lutheran clergyman, Julius Schubring. Following Mendelssohn's suggestions and views on how the subject should be dramatically presented, Schubring eliminated all narrative elements which should have provided the context for action. The result, as Werner notes, "is that the listener can never tell exactly who is speaking or singing unless he has the libretto in front of him."
After Schubring had completed the German libretto, derived largely from Luther's translation of the Bible, Mendelssohn called upon his faithful translator William Bartholomew to provide the English text and this within three months. His task was quite formidable and constricting involving the utilization, as far as possible, of the Authorized (King James) version of the Bible. His achievement is so admirably sufficient that many fail to realize that the original language of Elijah was German.
The oratorio is divided into two sections. In the first part the dramatic action predominates, while a more reflective and contemplative atmosphere permeates the second. Part One involves all those episodes in the Prophet's career centering around the great drought. In the course of this long period, Elijah delivers a solemn curse that dramatically opens the oratorio. The extensive polyphonic and thematically strict overture then depicts the effects of the drought on the people. Their wrath forces Elijah to seek hiding by the brook of Cherith. During this interlude he is confronted by the querulously tiresome widow of Zarephah and restores her son to life. Toward the end of the drought Elijah issues his famed challenge to the priests of Baal as the dramatic action rises to agitated and breathtaking tension. The return of rain observed from Mt. Carmel climaxes this half of the oratorio with the mighty chorus "Thanks be to God."
The second part finds Elijah fleeing from the threats of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, sunk in despair at his plight, and then restored by the voice of the Almighty in the hushed whispers of Mount Horeb. Most of this half of the oratorio emphasizes in its arias and choruses pious commentary on texts excerpted mostly from the Psalms and Isaiah. Here the culmination of the action is almost parenthetical as the chorus in passing mentions Elijah's assumption into heaven. Mendelssohn originally desired to end the oratorio here. Schubring's influence persuaded him to add further Messianically oriented excerpts from Malachi and Isaiah. The choruses here are brilliant and powerful, but their placement is somewhat anticlimactic.
In his famed book Music in the Romantic Era, Alfred Einstein offers this summary view of Elijah: "This is a work of the greatest stylistic purity, of the loftiest spirituality, this time more Classicistic than Romantic."