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Felix Mendelssohn's Elijah, Op. 70

Mendelssohn as an oratorio composer

Felix Mendelssohn's contributions to sacred vocal and choral music were prefigured by those of his great hero J. S. Bach. Having spearheaded the revival of Bach's music in Germany while he was still in his twenties, Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was sought after to compose music for the new cathedral being built in Berlin in the early 1840s.

Mendelssohn began to conceptualize his setting of Elijah in 1837, on the heels of completing his well-received oratorio St. Paul (Paulus. Lacking a specific occasion for its performance, he set it aside. His return to its composition in 1845 was prompted by an invitation to Birmingham in 1845. Mendelssohn then focused entirely on it, presenting a version adequate for performance in the Town Hall on August 26, 1846, but not sending to press a final version (as Op. 70) until the following year. The revised version was performed in London in April 1847. The composer was more satisfied with the new version, but in contrast to the unrestrained enthusiasm it elicited in Birmingham, the applause was now more modest.

The goal of working with a subject such as Elijah is considered to have appealed to Mendelssohn's wish to score a success with dramatic music. Despite having composed incidental music for two Sophoclean tragedies and Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream," he was seeking a reciprocal relationship between music and text that he felt he had not yet achieved. In Paulus the subject of religious conversion is fundamental. The composer's father Moses had campaigned in Berlin for the modernization of Jewish liturgy, and religious expression was never far from Mendelssohn's mind in these years. Mendelssohn's articulate expression in words sought a perfect union with music that often proved to be elusive. Before completing Elijah, he had studies some of Handel's oratorios carefully.

Sketch by Mendelssohn for a duet version of Elijah dated 1 January 1847 (Library of Congress).

Two areas of potential tension intersect in Elijah. One issues from Mendelssohn's conversion from Judaism to Protestant Christianity. All accounts hold that Mendelssohn was sincere in his beliefs, and he was well practiced in them by the time he composed Elijah. By relying on the Old Testament, Mendelssohn consistently avoided passages that could offend Jews. In performing Elijah in England, Mendelssohn also had to consider differences of cultural expectation that might exist between Berlin and England, where, following the great popularity G.F. Handel, robust choral works commanded supreme respect. His admiration for Britain was not necessarily an adequate underpinning for mounting the first performance. Some critics view a further concern that comes from Mendelssohn's perfectionism, whereby religious expression may sometimes yield to esthetic goals. As an idealist, Mendelssohn made multiple changes to both the music and the text (in particular its finale) between the Birmingham and London performances.

The composer imagined a third oratorio provisionally called Erde, Hoelle, Himmel, or Christus (Op. 97) to completed a trilogy. Only a few fragments of the work remain. Mendelssohn died unexpectedly, apparently of a familial cardiovascular disease, on November 4, 1747. In Leipzig, where he had often conducted and taught, a moving funeral service was held three days later in the Paulinerkirche. Mendelssohn was buried next to his sister in the Trinity Cemetery, Berlin.

Mendelssohn the prodigy

Mendelssohn's devotion to the music of Bach dated back to his student years. When he was nine years old, his sister Fanny (then aged thirteen) memorized the whole of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. The following year he and his sister were admitted to the chorus of Berlin's Sing-Akademie. Its emphasis was on the preservation of choral music. Mendelssohn and his sister studied music theory privately with the Akademie's director, Zelter, whom Mendelssohn harbored thoughts of succeeding. Felix also took organ lessons from A.W. Bach. His progress under Zelter was truly amazing. By 1821 he had mastered figured bass, invertible counterpoint, and the writing of two- and three-voiced fugues. He was barely thirteen.

It was in these same years that Mendelssohn began to compose. Zelter's pedagogical model were drawn largely from the Prussian violinist Johann Philipp Kirnberger (1721-1783), who had been a pupil of Bach and greatly admired his Thuringian master. Kirnberger especially championed Bach's Clavieruebungen and his chorale preludes (BWV 690-713). Kirnberger is remembered today for his composition manual Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik and his tweaks on equal-tempered tuning. While Mendelssohn's devotion to Bach took shape under Zelter, Zelter himself synthesized the values of the Sing-Akademie with pedagogical foundations laid by Kirnberger.

The Sing-Akademie fostered choral performance as an ultimate proof of worthiness of music of the past. In the years since its founding it had accumulated a considerable collection of choral scores, all of them preserved in manuscript. Choral societies were widely popular in Europe from the mid-eighteenth century well into the nineteenth, but despite there are ubiquity, printed scores were the exception.

There was, however, an immediate obstacle: pieces by Bach were rarely found in performing editions. In the eternal battle between editors and performers, Mendelssohn was a purist who preferred to present exactly what the notated, without additional adornments. The long traditional of German editions that connects his day to ours largely upholds this value, but supplies a critical apparatus to document emendations and alternatives.

The Making of Elijah

Parts for this edition of Elijah

These integral parts were edited and prepared by Walter Hewlett for a performance in Carnegie Hall, New York, in 2014. The Orchestra of St. Luke's performed with [Krista Bennion Feeney, concert mistress.


Brasses and Timpani