Mendelssohn’s Elijah frequently is described with terms verging on the grandiloquent: “epic,” “fiery,” “huge,” etc. And, in fact, they’re true. This is sweeping music on a topic that clearly inspired some of Mendelssohn’s most powerful creative juices. Many of us first encountered Elijah, this summer, in a series of casual, introductory rehearsals. I had done a few of the choruses here and there, and studied one in a conducting class: “He That Shall Endure to the End,” is permanently etched into my brain, not only having sung it probably several dozen times, but also having spent a semester in a classroom next to a conducting class, where it was studied and sung a similar number of times. Still, it’s a lovely chorus, and an excellent entry-level piece of Mendelssohn for young musicians to begin to navigate.
The piece was written for the festival of Birmingham, England, in 1846, and had its auspicious debut in August of that summer. Of those performances, The Times recorded:
Never was there a more complete triumph – never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art. Elijah is not only the chef-d’oeuvre of Mendelssohn, but altogether one of the most extraordinary achievements of human intelligence.
Such sentiments drowned out the nay-saying of some critics, including George Bernard Shaw, who wrote derogatorily of Mendelssohn’s “…exquisite prettiness,” but the oratorio captivated the musical world, and is perhaps the apotheosis of the fusion of Mendelssohn’s German roots and his anglicization of sorts as a chief musical figure in Victorian England. It also is a wonderful summation of his study of the music and oratorios of Bach and Händel.
The piece was originally written in German, with the understanding that it would be immediately translated into English for the premiere, and was conducted by Mendelssohn for the premiere on August 26, 1846. The Choir will be singing it in English for our performances in March. Of that premiere, Mendelssohn wrote to a friend of the performing forces and even the audience:
… all executing the music with special zest and the upmost fire and spirit doing just not only to the loudest passages, but also to the softest pianos in a manner which I never heard from such masses; and, in addition, an impressionable kindly hushed and enthusiastic audience – now still as mice, now exultant – all this is indeed sufficient good fortune for a first performance. In fact, I never in my life heard a better, or I may say one as good; and I almost doubt whether I shall ever again hear one equal to it, because there were so many favorable combinations on this occasion.
With those words, musicians and listeners alike seem to have our marching orders, and a great deal of time this fall and winter has been spent by The Choir on learning, carefully, the many movements of this masterpiece, which tells the story of the biblical prophet, Elijah.
Rather than summarize the work in one go (I’m not sure I could do so), I’m going to be updating frequently during the remaining weeks of preparation for what’s sure to be one of our most exciting and rewarding Spring Concerts yet. We’ll be joined by the Keystone Singers of Millersville, taking the number of choral musicians up to around 135, a talented quartet of soloists, including Dashon Burton, who will be singing the title role, and an augmented Bach Festival Orchestra, with a number of added brass players.
Over the fall, I’ve encountered the work in bits and pieces – enjoying the movements we’ve learned, listening to Paul McCreesh’s really excellent account of the piece on CD, and chatting with friends and colleagues about it. The real a-ha moment came for me a few weeks ago, when we finally sang through the last movement. Elijah begins with a powerful and dark recitative for the baritone soloist (and, trust me, the instant you hear those d- and g-minor cords that begin the piece, along with the opening arpeggio sung slowly by Dashon, you’ll know what an amazing journey upon which you’re about to embark!). Towards the end of the recit, the wind instruments move in unison with the baritone, as he warns, in the voice of Elijah, that there shall not be “dew nor rain.” Mendelssohn creates a kind of musical aridness to accompany this dire warning – with the use of tritones: an interval known as the augmented fourth, which was also known in medieval times as the diabolus in musica, or “the devil in music.” Those intervals appear a few times in the piece, each time representing a deep darkness. As we sight-read the last movement, we sang through a huge and powerful fugue, not unlike the one that concludes the third movement of the Brahms Requiem, and we reached a homophonic or chordal statement of the theme, followed by the basses singing a series of three tritones, with the higher three voices singing a canon above us on the word “amen.” I didn’t immediately make the connection, but Greg turned to the basses and said, “Isn’t that marvelous?” We were all catching our breath, and nodding in assent, more surprised by the difficulty of the line (not having identified those thorny intervals as the tritones in the moment). Later in the evening, I listened to the movement at home, and it dawned on me that Mendelssohn heroically transforms those dark, devilish intervals into something utterly triumphant and transcendent. It’s one of the great moments of 19th century (or all) music, in a work that contains much beauty and drama. Please order your tickets now: The performance on the 9th will be at Millersville University, and if you’re joining us then, tickets are available at MU Tickets Online Page. The Performance on the 10th will be at the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, and you may purchase tickets by visiting our ticket order page, or give the Bachhaus a call at 610 866 4382. The performance on the 13th will be at Strathmore, in suburban Maryland, and you may order tickets from their page, here. Also, please continue checking back here – I’ll be posting frequently on the many facets of this amazing piece of music.