Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Elijah
Mendelssohn was a great admirer of Handel’s oratorios and conducted many of them in Germany; he was also a frequent visitor to Britain, where his own two oratorios became great hits: so the better known of them, Elijah, premiered in Birmingham in 1846, is in a very real sense a direct successor to Handel’s Messiah. The form is certainly similar, comprising 2 main sections each consisting of narrative passages (“recitatives”) interspersed with choruses and arias for the soloists; and the texts are all taken from the Bible, in this case 1 and 2 Kings, the books of the prophets and Psalms. Moreover there are sections in which Mendelssohn pays explicit homage to his illustrious predecessor.
But this is oratorio reinvented for the nineteenth century. The narrative is amplified by a strong dramatic element, with the bass soloist taking the role of Elijah and the chorus often representing the people of Israel. And the music includes some of the best writing for voices and orchestra to come out of the early Romantic period, with passages of thrilling excitement, tender beauty and even dry humour all knitted together into a wonderful harmonic unity.
Elijah depicts episodes from the prophet’s life, set against the familiar pattern of the Israelites' oscillating relationship with their God. In Part One Elijah restores a dead child to life, taunts the adherents of Baal about the authenticity of their god, and prevails on God to deliver at last the rain that will end a terrible extended drought. Part Two describes Elijah falling into despondency under the threats of Queen Jezebel, meeting with God on Mount Horeb, and being taken up into heaven.
Elijah was rapturously received at its early perfomances and has remained consistently popular with British audiences ever since.
Peter Harbord, North Yorkshire Chorus