by ARTHUR F. EDWARDS
Elijah, Op. 70
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Shortly after Mendelssohn's first oratorio, St. Paul, was completed (in 1836), the composer began to plan a second oratorio on the subject of "the wrath and the grief of the prophet Elijah" (to use H. E. Jacob’s phrase). However, the work on the libretto did not go well, and the project was shelved until 1845, when the composer received an invitation to write and conduct a new oratorio at the Birmingham Festival the following year. The first performance took place August 26, 1846. It was the second of four evenings of choral music of the festival, the other works being Haydn's Creation, Handel's Messiah, and the Beethoven Missa Solemnis. A correspondent who was present at the performance wrote,
"How shall I describe what today has been in the Music Hall? After such an intense enjoyment it is a hard task to express one's feelings in cold words. It was a great day for the festival, a great day for Mendelssohn, a great day for art. There were eight encores…”
In spite of the success of the premiere, Mendelssohn was not satisfied with the work, and all but five numbers were revised during the following months, in time for the first London performance on April 16, 1847. This was Mendelssohn's tenth and last trip to England. Friends pressed him to remain in London a little longer, but he had a presentiment that he must leave hurriedly. "Ah, I wish I may not already have stayed too long here! One more week of this unremitting fatigue and I should be killed outright." He was manifestly ill. Upon his arrival in Frankfurt, he abruptly learned that his beloved sister, Fanny, had died at the piano while conducting a choir rehearsal. With a cry, Felix collapsed. The shock of the news and the violence of his fall on hearing it brought about a rupture of one of those delicate cerebral blood vessels which had caused so many deaths in the Mendelssohn family. He made a partial recovery, but another stroke on November 3 caused his death the following day, three months short of his 39th birthday.
The text of Elijah was prepared by Mendelssohn's friend, Julius Schubring and translated into English by William Bartholomew, under the constant supervision of the composer. "The personages should act and speak like living beings - for Heaven's sake let them not be a musical picture, but a real world, such as you find in every chapter of the Old Testament; and the contemplative and pathetic element, which you desire, ought to be entirely conveyed to our understanding by the words and the mood of the acting personages."
The decision to limit the text to words from the Bible proved to be an unfortunate one, particularly in the second part. Pastor Schubring's desire to derive uplifting lessons from the story of the prophet led to an extension of the work beyond the ascent of Elijah into heaven (where Mendelssohn originally planned to end the oratorio). The few cuts in tonight's performance are excisions of this added section.
Despite occasional unevenness, largely due to dramatic deficiencies of the text, Elijah contains much music of great power and beauty. "Elijah is elemental music ... Just as the depths of the Rhine and the rocks in Wagner's Ring are not merely the scene of the human and divine drama, but help to shape the drama, in fact form the basis for it- similarly, the soil of Palestine in Elijah shares the stage with Elijah himself. It is a land of drought, thirst and hunger, and also of lightning, thunder, blue-black torrents of rain; of earthquakes, fires, raging storms, green oases and golden deserts of leathery palm leaves and aromatic shrubs, and whistling wind 'in which is the Lord.' Such is the ground on which Elijah walks, and he himself, the zealot, quick to wrath and subsiding into sorrow, has the character of the soil itself." (H. E. Jacob: Felix Mendelssohn and His Times, p. 251).
Elijah consists of a series of tableau. After the master-stroke of the prophet's curse occurring before the overture: "A fugue. A fear-stricken crowd creeps along, on winding paths; this is not a march but a slow dragging movement of dying creatures who fall out by the wayside- we can almost see it! This is drought... The Israelites languish and die." (Ibid., p. 252).
Elijah is sent to a widow who will provide sustenance until the three years of the curse are concluded. Her son sickens and "there is no breath in him." Elijah prays that the child be brought back to life. This scene, though operatic in treatment, provides the only interior scene in the work and shows the wrathful prophet in a more gentle mood.
The three years are over. Elijah issues his challenge to Ahab: let two sacrifices be prepared, one altar for Baal and one for Jehovah. "The God who answers by fire, he is God.'' Confidently at first, then desperately, the priests of Baal cry to their God; as they vainly wait for a response, Elijah mocks them. Finally, in one of the most dramatic grand pauses in musical literature, it becomes evident that there will be no answer for the impotent priests of Baal. Elijah then quietly prays to the "Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel" that His prophet be vindicated. The prayer is answered, the fire descends, the awed populace reaffirms a belief in one God as they proclaim the Sh'ma Yisroel.
Elijah is now completely in charge - as he has been all the time - and orders the false priests slain. In a fanatical song of triumph, Handelian and inexorable, the victorious prophet sings of the judgment of Jehovah. But He is also merciful, and in response to Elijah's prayers, the heavens are opened and torrents of rain pour upon the thirsty land. This entire tableau is highly effective, musically and dramatically. Mendelssohn manages to limn the drama of the miraculous happenings, and, without unduly slowing the pace, performs his homage to Bach and Handel in chorale and arioso.
Mendelssohn and Schubring were not as successful in keeping up the pace and comprehensibility in the second part. Much of the music is glorious, but the taut drama of the first part is often lacking. Often, little seems to be happening, but it is commented on at length. Mendelssohn's desire for drama yields to Schubring's wish to uplift the listener. The aria which begins the second part is a good example. It has great beauty, but is not very relevant to the story, which must be reconstructed partly from sources outside the libretto.
Ahab and his people have lapsed again into idolatry. Elijah continues to warn them, but people grow weary of being told they are wrong. Jezebel, the Sidonite, has never forgiven Elijah for the slaughter of her priests and directs that he be seized and slain. Elijah flees into the desert and takes refuge "beneath a juniper tree." And now occurs "a passage of such grandeur that it makes us forget the dramatic weakness of the second act. For now Elijah no longer wishes to serve ... He feels that he has lived in vain. He has been unable to extirpate the worship of Baal. All his anger has accomplished nothing. Profound melancholy overpowers him. He wishes to die. He pleads with God to grant him death. It is no Bachian death he desires, no consoling entrance into Eternal Life, but a quiet passage into nothingness ... But God will not permit Elijah to die. For the present he is still needed on earth ... Elijah continues to hold back, but an angel leads him to Mount Horeb." (Jacob, p. 255).
Here God speaks to him, and gives him his marching orders. It is not the substance of the Lord's commands that Mendelssohn deals with; rather, it is the glory of God's presence. Behold God the Lord passed by is the greatest, most inspired chorus Mendelssohn ever wrote. It "is elemental music, begotten of the Palestinian landscape; and at the same time it is spiritual music. Greater intensity is scarcely possible than the intensity achieved in the Ascension of Elijah. God sends His chariot of fire and carries the prophet off to Heaven. There are flashes of jagged lightning in the orchestra; the winds are like molten metal; the chorus accompanies the miracle with stormy rhythms and long drawn-out cries." (Ibid, p. 155).
Of the five numbers in the final section, only two are included in this performance. Although they serve to end the work with fine dignity (and endeavor to relate the prophet to the fulfillment of the New Testament), one must admit that the best music of the oratorio has already occurred.