Felix Mendelssohn


Op. 70 • “Elias”

About this work

The immediate success of Elijah (1846) may in some way be regarded as inevitable, given the confluence of elements central to Mendelssohn's being as a composer: his cultish following in Victorian England, his lyric and dramatic gifts, his devotion to the genius of Bach and to his own ideals of religious music. The Mozartian fluency that was usual in Mendelssohn's compositional process gave way during the creation of Elijah to constant, extensive reworkings of the musical materials as he divined the possibilities of the biblical texts. After nearly ten years of intermittent collaboration with librettist Julius Schubring, an invitation sent to Mendelssohn in June 1845 from the committee of England's Birmingham Festival provided the composer with the necessary impetus to have the project completed in time for a premiere there in August of the following year. The long-anticipated first performance was prepared amid great ceremony. After two full rehearsals in London, the entire contingent of performers, numbering nearly 400, was bundled onto two chartered trains which ran to the festival site. The performance met every expectation as an unqualified triumph.

In a brief but dramatically crucial introduction, Mendelssohn sets the stage for the remainder of the work: the prophet Elijah foretells of the drought which is to plague the people of Israel. Later, the terrified cries of the people to the idol Baal are repeatedly greeted with stunningly bleak, Godless silences. This skillful use of the ensemble in the illustration of the text is again evident in the chorus "Thanks Be to God," which ends the first section. Here the drought is relieved amid surging arpeggios in the strings, while the bright, kinetic sonorities of the brass and the chorus suggest the deliverance and spiritual triumph of the people. The operatic analogies which might be drawn from Elijah extend even to Mozart. The terzetto for women's voices "O Lift Thine Eyes," for example, at once evokes the spirit of the Three Ladies from The Magic Flute. In what is perhaps the oratorio's most famous aria, "It is Enough," an almost Baroque gravity predominates, heightened by the darkly scored sarabande rhythm that underpins Elijah's desolate plea. In the expertly crafted passages that abound in fugal writing and four-part chorales, Mendelssohn again acknowledges his lifelong debt to the music of Bach. The composer's own gift of song is evident in several of the arias; "If with All Your Hearts" demonstrates a particular expansiveness. In choruses such as "He, Watching over Israel," the effect resembles nothing so much as a lied set for the entire chorus.

After the work's premiere, Mendelssohn made extensive changes to the score, noting, "I am right not to rest till such work is as good as it is in my power to make it; even though very few people care to hear about such things, or notice them, and even though they take very much time; yet the impression such passages, if really better, produce in themselves and on the whole work, is such a different one, that I feel I cannot leave them as they now stand." He did not, in fact, allow the publication of the score until the revisions were complete. It is this final version which remains not only Mendelssohn's last completed work of this scope, but perhaps also the work that best reveals those elements -- steadfast religious faith, an affinity with his musical forebearers, and an unerring dramatic sense -- which remained central during the relatively brief but prodigious span of his career.