A story of Biblical proportions
Like most oratorios, Elijah is based on a Biblical story, this one from the Book of Kings.
The prophet Elijah has predicted a drought: punishment for those who worship the false God Baal. This includes King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel.
After Elijah is proved right, he persuades the People to repent – and to kill Baal’s prophets. Their faith is rewarded with storm clouds and rain. But Jezebel, furious, forces Elijah into exile.
Alone and hopeless in the wilderness, Elijah is consoled first by angels and then – after a mighty storm, an earthquake and a fire – by God himself.
Following his trials, Elijah is whisked up to heaven in a fiery chariot. His return is prophesied, and we end with a profound reflection on the glory of God and a triumphant ‘Amen’.
Elijah contains eight named roles, generally performed by four soloists. In order of appearance, they are:
Elijah (baritone), prophet and the hero of the story.
Obadiah (tenor), head of King Ahab’s household and a fellow devoted believer in God.
An Angel (mezzo-soprano), one of two to appear to Elijah.
The Widow (soprano), who shelters Elijah, and whose son he resurrects.
Ahab (tenor), King of the Israelites.
The Youth (soprano or treble), first to spot rain clouds on the horizon.
The Queen, Jezebel (mezzo-soprano), a worshipper of Baal who turns against Elijah, ordering his execution.
The Angel (soprano), who comforts Elijah in the wilderness, directing him to Mount Horeb where he sees God.
Meanwhile the chorus acts as both The People and as a commentator on the drama itself, as in ancient Greek theatre.
At Elijah’s 1846 premiere there were 10 soloists: four sang the named roles, while the other six filled in on the various unnamed solos, trios, quartets and octet. Productions today usually enlist singers from the chorus to perform these unnamed parts.
Steeped in tradition
Elijah’s composer, Felix Mendelssohn, is often described as a ‘Classicising Romantic’ – someone who preferred to adopt and adapt traditional forms, rather than cast them aside. He was besotted with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel, and became a major force in the 18th-century revival of interest in these Baroque composers.
No surprise, then, that Elijah nods to his musical heroes. Structurally, for instance, alongside standard oratorio forms such as recitative and aria, he includes complex choral fugues in the manner of Bach. One aria, ‘It is enough’, is actually modelled on an aria from Bach’s St John Passion.
Then there’s the text. Elijah was commissioned by the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival and prepared in both German and English. There was precedent for this. Handel – a naturalised British citizen born in Germany – had experimented with the ‘English Oratorio’ in the 1710s, in order to get around a law that forbade operas being performed during Lent. Haydn picked up the thread in 1796 with The Creation, also printed in both languages.
Written by an honorary Brummie
Born in Hamburg in 1809, Mendelssohn was the quintessential musical prodigy. Two of his best-loved works, the String Octet and the concert overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream, were written before his 18th birthday.
Though famous across Europe, he had a special relationship with Brits. Queen Victoria was fond of his music (and company), and his tour of Scotland became immortalised in The Hebrides Overture and the ‘Scottish’ Symphony.
Mendelssohn also visited Birmingham four times, and in 1834 he performed at the first Triennial Festival held in the newly built Town Hall. Here he conducted, to great acclaim, his oratorio St Paul, performed on the famous William Hill organ, and he was soloist in the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto.
When he returned to Birmingham to conduct the premiere of Elijah, crowds thronged the streets as they made their way to the Town Hall. During the performance, the 2,500-strong audience regularly interrupted to applaud – and eight numbers were encored. ‘Never was there a more complete triumph,’ wrote a reviewer in The Times.
The product of a perfectionist
After the huge success of his first oratorio St Paul in 1836, Mendelssohn laboured for many years on a follow up. It wasn’t until he received the commission from the Birmingham Festival that he felt spurred on to actually complete Elijah.
Even after the huge success of the 1846 premiere, he wasn’t satisfied. The following year he revised the work extensively, cutting and replacing whole numbers. Such perfectionism was normal for the composer, and few of his works escaped substantial reworking. In a letter to his English publisher, Mendelssohn called his habit of constant alteration a ‘dreadful disease’.
The premiere of this latest version of Elijah was given by the Sacred Harmonic Society at London’s Exeter Hall, conducted by the composer. But Mendelssohn would not have the opportunity to make any further revisions. He died later that year, aged just 38.
Written by Timmy Fisher, sub-editor within the BBC Proms Publications team, co-host of The Classical Music Pod, writer and journalist.