By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D
Loyola Marymount University
When Eric Werner, in his biographical study of Mendelssohn and his works (Mendelssohn, A New Image of the Composer and His Works, N.Y. 1963), concludes his analysis of the oratorio Elijah he clearly establishes the grounds for considering it the greatest of the Nineteenth century. "Nonetheless, if only through its great musical conception, the oratorio far surpasses the interpretation of a complex of ideas which is narrowly limited by theological considerations. In its best numbers it rises to realms of awe which are no longer accessible to rational language. In this respect it stands on a lonely height near to the creations of Bach and Handel."
Mendelssohn himself in a letter of enthusiastic description to his brother Paul after the oratorio's first performance in Birmingham, August 26, 1846, summed up its impact on audience and musicians alike. His assessment of the performance of Elijah forecast its enduring appeal. "No work of mine ever went so admirably the first performance, or was received 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 performance. During the whole two and a half hours that it lasted, the two thousand people in the large hall and the great orchestra concentrated so completely on the one object in question that not the slightest sound was heard in the whole audience so that I could at pleasure sway the enormous orchestra, organ accompaniments and choir. How often I thought of you, Paul, during that event. More especially so, when the "sound of abundance of rain" came and when they sang and played the final chorus with furore ... No less than four choruses and four airs were encored ... A young English tenor sang the last Air (#39: Then shall the righteous shine forth) with such wonderful sweetness that I was obliged to collect all my energies so as not to be affected and to be able to continue beating time steadily."
From Bach and Handel he 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. His use of fluid fugue passages enabled Mendelssohn to develop and build up Elijah's striking climaxes. On the other hand, the melting English tenor he alludes to illustrates those tendencies in his work which subsequently gave rise, often quite inaccurately, to those recurring strictures aimed at his "sweet sentimentality."
The thrust in the Nineteenth century toward emphasizing these romantic traits can be seen in the emotional gush of a dedication penned on the program notes and sent from Buckingham Palace by Albert, Prince Consort to Queen Victoria, after the equally successful performance in London’s Exeter Hall several days after the premier. "To the Noble Artist, who surrounded by the Baal-worship of debased art, has been able, by his genius and science, like another Elijah, faithfully to preserve the worship of true art, and once more to accustom our ears, amid the whirl of empty frivolous sounds, to the pure tones of sympathetic feeling and legitimate harmony; to the Great Master who brings home to us the unity of his conception through the whole maze of his creation from the soft whispering to the mighty raging of the elements: Inscribed in grateful remembrance by Albert."
Today at a distance of over 140 years our less fervid and more objective evaluation of Mendelssohn's work is revealed by Karl Heinz Koehler's studied views 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 extramusical 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 St. Paul. After failing to receive satisfactory librettos from his friend Carl Klingemann, who had offered to elaborate one for him as a wedding present, and from an English friend Charles Greville, 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 element which should have provided 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."
As early as 1848, two years after Elijah's premier, the excellent biographer and critic Otto Jahn pointed up this lack of epic narration crippling the oratorio's dramatic impact. In his rejections of what he considered the half-operatic character of some oratorios, Mendelssohn, Jahn observed, failed to distinguish between the oratorio form as epic and theatrical drama. Another weakness in Elijah comes also from the incorporation of disparate Scriptural quotation from a wide range of books taken out of context or historical setting and applied to Elijah. These excerpts furnish opportunity for pietistic refection on the action. In several instances he elicited from them vivid, colorful, and mighty choral comment; in others his reflective meditations verge occasionally on the insipid and sentimental.
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. Bartholomew's task which was quite formidable and constricting involved the utilization as far as was possible of the Authorized Version of the King James Bible. Moreover he was given a mere three months from May to August, 1846, to create a translation corresponding to rhythm and phrasing of Mendelssohn's music. His achievement is so admirably sufficient that many fail to realize that the original language of Elijah was German.
How did Mendelssohn conceive the character of Elijah? As early as November 2, 1838, he wrote to Schubring: "In fact I imagined Elijah as a real prophet through and through, of the kind we could really do with today - strong, zealous, and yes, even bad-tempered, angry, and brooding - in contrast to the riff-raff, whether of the court or of the people, and indeed in contrast to almost the whole world - and yet borne aloft as if on angels' wings."
In the intervening years to 1846 Mendelssohn's experience of life's deprivations, buffets, and struggles and his growing awareness of impending death combined to soften this characterization. His Elijah, affirmed Otto Jahn in 1848, "is above all the pious man who firmly believes that God listens to his prayer ... but zeal and flintiness are not basic traits of his character. He is soft and sympathetic, he is deeply troubled that his warning is disregarded and only the appearance of God sets him on his feet again."
The Oratorio is divided into two segments. 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 three-year period there occurs Elijah's solemn curse so dramatically opening 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 with the querulously tiresome widow of Zarephath 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 Mount Carmel climaxes this half of the oratorio in the mighty chorus "Thanks be to God."
The second part of the oratorio 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 hushed whispers on Mount Horeb. Most of this half of the oratorio emphasizes in its arias and choruses pious commentary on texts excerpted mostly from 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 impress one as somewhat anticlimactic.