Felix Mendelssohn


Op. 36 • “St Paul”

About this work

Felix Mendelssohn's massive oratorio Paulus (1836) is based on the story of Saul, the zealous Pharisee who, after a dramatic encounter with the risen Christ, turns from a fanatical enemy of Christians into the most influential apologist of the Christian faith. Using the New Testament, particularly the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles as sources, Mendelssohn wrote his own version of Paul's story. While the influence of Bach and Handel are at once evident in Mendelssohn's score, Paulus is by no means a replica of the Baroque oratorio. Mendelssohn expressed his ideas with great contrapuntal facility and clarity, with a technical competence rivaling the expertise of the great Baroque masters, but his counterpoint is fresh and original, and the writing fluent and elegant.

The oratorio's overture, as well as a significant section of the first choral number, is based on the chorale "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" (Awake, cries to us the voice). Like Bach, Mendelssohn uses chorales to express deep, fundamental religiosity. Mendelssohn's articulation of musical symbols is highly individual, expressing the composer's personal view of Christianity. While the choruses in Paulus may seem quite conventional, for example, Mendelssohn's use of different voice combinations to present particular characters is both innovative and highly effective. To the consternation of some of Mendelssohn's contemporaries, the voice of Christ at the most dramatic moment of the oratorio -- when the Savior addresses Saul directly -- is portrayed by a four-part women's choir. Critics excoriated Mendelssohn for giving the fateful words "Saul, why persecutest thou me?" to women's voices, remaining blind to the sheer emotional power of this moment.

Mendelssohn's Christ, whose voice is distant, mysterious, and yet tremendously powerful, possesses an otherworldly, spectral quality, suggesting the infinitesimal closeness and infinite remoteness of God. Mendelssohn uses powerful musical symbolism to suggest the idea of Christ's dual (i.e. human and divine) nature. Following a masterful dramatic progression, Saul's breath-taking dialogue with Christ takes the entire work to its highest emotional plane. This, of course, does not mean that the rest of the narrative, the chronicle Saul's life as the Christian Paul, lacks dramatic interest, for it encompasses both the titanic struggles of a contested faith and intimations of God's unfathomable being and limitless power. In adding exquisite instrumental coloration to the oratorio's soulful arias, Mendelssohn expresses an extraordinary spectrum of religious feeling, from dark doubt to radiant certainty. Ending with a powerful double fugue, Paulus is a beautiful, profound musical tribute to one of the founders of the Christian tradition.