Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Elijah
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
taken from the Bible, in this case 1 and 2 Kings, the books of the
there are sections in
which Mendelssohn pays explicit homage to his illustrious predecessor.
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
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
tender beauty and even dry humour all knitted together into a wonderful
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