Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Elijah, Get Thee Hence, Elijah

The Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus present Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah in the Ohio Theater April 1 and 2 at 8 p.m. Your humble author gives pre performance talks in the theater at 7 p.m. Ronald J. Jenkins is conductor of the Columbus Symphony Chorus. Rossen Milanov,  Music Director of the Columbus Symphony, conducts both performances.

If you were a composer in mid 19th century Germany it would be easy to get lost between the death of Beethoven in 1827 and the death of Brahms 70 years later. Schubert does well. Robert Schumann holds his own. I sometimes worry about Carl Maria von Weber ( 1786-1826) and Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Weber's operas Eurytanthe and Der Fresichutz should be performed more often. Mendelssohn might have the same problem as Haydn:  a prolific composer who excelled in every genre. It's less a question of what to perform then where to begin.

Elijah is one of Mendelssohn's last works, and is probably his best loved today. It was commissioned by England's Birmingham Choral Festival, which had been the musical home of Handel's oratorios in the hundred years since that composer's death. Birmingham was a choral society in the best sense, open to member of the community from every class and station, as long as you could hold a tune and probably sing loud. We're told the Society made a lot of sound, and went for splendor in its performances. No bad thing this, since Mendelssohn was a true romantic. He loved program music. His overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was premiered when the composer was just 17. It was an instant hit and made the young mans' name.

Mendelssohn at the piano with Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort
The oratorio had been in decline since Haydn's The Seasons and The Creation were introduced in the beginning of the 19th century. Schubert's Lazarus was left incomplete. Liszt was toying off and on with Christus, but Mendelssohn had had a success with St. Paul. But gone were the days when Handel would produce a new biblical-themed choral extravaganza every year. The last, The Triumph of Time and Truth was written in 1757.

Mendelssohn, one day reading the bible,  came across tales of the prophet Elijah in the first book of Kings. In 1838 Mendelssohn wrote to his friend Julius Schubring

    I picture Elijah as a grand and mighty prophet of a kind we would do well to have in our own day.
Powerful, zealous but also harsh and angry and saturnine; a striking contrast to the court sycophants  and the rabble; in antithesis, in fact virtually to the whole world, yet borne on wings of angels.

Schubring assisted Mendelssohn in putting together a German language libretto based on the Old Testament. The years over which the composer worked on Elijah saw him as the music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, and serving as de facto music director for the new German Emperor. There was a lot of administrative work and a lot of "court sycophants". Mendelssohn's regular trips to England, where his music was loved,  must have been a refreshing change. Likewise the admiration of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, who attended Mendelssohn's concerts and entertained him at Windsor.

Mendelssohn was no stranger to oratorio. He grew up on Palestrina as a child in the Berlin Singakademie. He singlehandedly brought J.S. Bach out from academia with his performances of the St. Matthew Passion, a work long neglected. Suddenly Bach was recognized as the father of Western music. St. Paul had been sung brilliantly in Birmingham, and a triumphant return to a fine chorus with a new work was too good to resist. Elijah, conducted by Mendelssohn had its premiere on August 26, 1846,  two weeks after he complete ed the score. It was hoped that Mendelssohn' s colleague Jenny Lind would sing. She did not, then. Nevertheless Elijah was a crowd pleaser then and now. Mendelssohn set Schubring's German texts from the Old Testament, I and II Kings and some of the Psalms. At the same time, an English text was prepared by William Bartholomew. The premiere was sung in English, the German text used at home.

The best one word description I can come up with for Mendelssohn's music is melodic. The man knew how to write a tune.  He also had an uncanny dramatic sense. Elijah opens with a granitic recitative for the prophet, establishing immediately who is boss. Then there's a symphonic overture The chorus begins with the cry Help Lord! Why have you forsaken us?

Go to the concerts this weekend if you want to hear more. Elijah himself is musically isolated with slow, dark music. The soprano,  tenor and mezzo each have splendid, lyrical (tuneful ) arias to relieve the dramatic tension.

My favorite moments in the score come toward the end of part 1. Elijah and the followers of Judah get into a shouting contest with King Ahab and the followers of Baal. Which god can relieve the drought? Elijah jeers on the Baalites, whose god does not respond. Call him louder!

The only down side to the Elijah premiere was the appearance of the composer himself: thin, bald and stooped. He died a year later. He had endured the death of his beloved sister, the composer Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. Not even a happy marriage and five children got him over this shock. Mendelssohn died on November 4, 1847, sixteen months after Elijah's first performance.

"We were horrified, astounded and distressed to read in the paper of the death of Mendelssohn, the greatest musical genius since Mozart, and the most amiable man."

So wrote Queen Victoria, who was known to love a good funeral. More to the point, in thirty- eight years,  Felix Mendelssohn accomplished more than many a monarch.

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