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Exploring Music: Excellent--Felix Mendelsson's Elijah Op. 70

The MHS Review 393 Vol. 11 No. 15, 1987

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David M. Greene


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It was, of course, Handel who elevated the oratorio to its place of high esteem in England, though what he called "oratorios" were more often than not biblically derived unstaged operas in English. And when they weren't, as with Messiah, they were at a considerable remove from the Italian and French pioneering forms. In fact, so powerful was his impact that no oratorios of conse­quence appeared in England until Haydn's Creation, the masterpiece of his old age. This acted as a sort of shot in the arm for the genre, though it must be said that the best examples continued to be produced by such non-natives as Spohr.

It was another foreigner, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who really revitalized the British appetite and got the creative juices flowing among English com­posers. In fact, for the next couple of generations, English musicians felt they had not really arrived until they wrote an oratorio. For all that, the effons of such worthies as Sullivan, Parry, and Stanford were mostly stillborn, and only Elgar ap­proached acknowledged greatness, though works by such as Maunder and Stainer achieved considerable popularity largely because they could be done by amateur performers.

Mendelssohn wrote only two oratorios (a third was projected at the time of his ear­ly death). Both seem to have been born of genuine religious conviction. The first was Paulus (St. Paul), premiered in Diisseldorf in its composer's 25th year. Though its musical inspiration came from Felix's ear­ly love affair with the works of JS. Bach, its theme-the miraculous conversion of a Jewish intellectual-was close to home.

His grandfather Moses had emerged from the ghetto to be an admired thinker among the goyim and, true to his name, to pave the way for the emancipation of his peo­ple. His son, the banker Abraham, urged on by his brother-in-law Jacob Bartholdy (ne Solomon), who had taken the step in 1805, had his offspring baptized into the Lutheran faith, and he and his wife later converted. Abraham saw a reflection of himself in Paul, and it was his death in 1835 that served as a catalyst for his son.

Felix first visited England (as part of a wealthy young man's necessary education) when he was 20, and found it much to his taste. He returned repeatedly, and won the friendship of Victoria and Albert. Victoria loved music (she sang decently), and Albert was a trained composer, who found Mendelssohn's classicism more to his lik­ing than the odd things the romantics were doing. Felix's church music caught the at­tention of the amateur choir festivals, and it was the one at Birmingham which com­missioned from him his second oratorio, the work that was to make his contem­poraries rank him with the immortals.

Though he had toyed with the idea of an oratorio since his first one, Felix would rather have written an opera for the Swedish Nightingale (Jenny Lind, and con­sidered such subjects as The Tempest, Lorelay, and the Nibelungenlied. However, he had had the Elijah story in his head for a decade, and the commission decided him once and for all. Moreover, to kill two birds, he wrote the soprano part for Miss Lind.

Eliyyahu, known in European culture as Elias or Elijah, lived in the ninth century BC, and, though he left no writings, is regarded by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as one of the great prophets, chiefly for his saving of monotheistic Yahweh worship from the incursions of the cult of the Phoenician fertility god Baal. Mendelssohn covers all the highlights: Eli­jah's resurrecting the dead child; his being fed by the ravens in the wilderness; his humiliation of the priests of Baal; his en­ding of a prolonged drought; and his ultimate translation to heaven in a whirlwind.

The oratorio was premiered at Birm­ingham in 1846, though Miss Lind was ab­sent, having decided to exercise her well­known temperament. Mme. Caradori­-Allan, who replaced her, was a disaster. The production was Victoriana at its gaudiest: 125 instrumentalists and a chorus of 271.

The libretto, based on Holy Writ, was the work of a German theologian, Julius Schubring, and was translated for Birmingham--in which form it is best known here. The present recording restores the original text. The four soloists are excellent, though Corboz's concept strikes me as rather sober. But perhaps one has gotten too used to overblown Mendelssohn.

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