Music with Ease > Classical Music > Concert Guide: Romantic Era > Elijah (Mendelssohn)
"Elijah," the most popular of all Mendelssohns compositions, was finished in 1846, and was first performed August 18 of that year, at the Birmingham (England) Festival. The prominent scenes treated in the oratorio are the drought prophecy, the raising of the widows son, the rival sacrifices, the appearance of the rain in answer to Elijahs appeal, Jezebels persecution of Elijah, the sojourn in the desert, his return, his disappearance in the fiery chariot, and the Finale, which reflects upon the meaning of the sacred narrative.
The introduction to be oratorio is prefaced by a brief, but impressive recitative -- Elijahs prophecy of the drought -- leading directly to the overture, a sombre, despairing prelude, picturing the distress which is to follow as the course settles down upon the streams and valleys. At last the suffering is voiced in the opening chorus ("Help, Lord!"), which, after three passionate appeals, moves along in plaintive beauty, developing phrase after phrase of touching appeal, and leading to a second chorus, with duet for two sopranos ("Lord, bow Thine ear to our Prayer"), the choral part of which is an old Jewish chant, sung alternately by the male and female voices in unison. It is followed by Obadiahs tenor aria ("If with all your Hearts"), full of tenderness and consolation. Again the people break out into a chorus of lamentation ("Yet doth the Lord see it not"), which at the close develops into a chorale of serene beauty ("For He the Lord our God"). Then follows the voice of an angel summoning Elijah to the brook of Cherith, leading to the beautiful double quartet ("For He shall give His angels charge over thee"), the melody of which is simple, but full of animation. Again the angel summons Elijah to go to the widows house at Zarephath. The dramatic scene of the raising of her son ensues, comprising a passionate song by the mother ("What have I to do with thee?") and the noble declaration of the prophet ("Give me the Son"), and closing with the reflective chorus ("Blessed are the Men who fear Him").
In the next scene we have the appearance of Elijah before Ahab, and the challenge of the priests of Baal to the sacrifice on Mount Carmel, set forth in vigorous recitative, accompanied by short choral outbursts. At the words of Elijah ("Invoke your Forest Gods and Mountain Deities") the priest of Baal break out into the stirring double chorus ("Baal, we cry to thee"), which is fairly sensual and heathenish in its rugged, abrupt melodies, as compared with the Christian music. At its close Elijah bids them ("Call him louder, for he is a God; he talketh, or he is pursuing!"). Again they break put into a chorus of barbaric energy ("Hear our cry, O Baal!"), in the intervals of which Elijah taunts them again and again with the appeal ("Call him louder!"). The priests renew their shouts, each time with increasing force, pausing in vain for the reply, and closing with a rapid, almost angry expostulation ("Hear and answer"). Then follows the calm, dignified prayer of the prophet ("Lord God of Abraham"), succeeded by a simple, but beautiful chorale ("Cast thy Burden upon the Lord"). It is the moment of quiet before the storm which is to come. He calls for the fire to descend upon the altar, and a chorus of passionate energy replies ("The fire descends from Heaven"), accompanied by imitative music, and closing with a brief movement in broad harmony. In fierce recitative Elijah dooms the priests of Baal to destruction, and after a short chorale reply sings the bass aria ("Is not His word like a Fire?"). An arioso for alto ("Woe unto them") follows Elijahs vigorous declamation. These two arias are connecting links between the fire chorus and the rain scene which ensues. Obadiah summons Elijah to help the people. And Elijah replies in an Andante passage, repeated by the chorus ("Open the Heavens and send us Relief"). Then follows a dialogue-passage between the prophet, the people, and the youth, whom he bids ("Look toward the Sea") -- the most striking features of which are the responses of the youth and the orchestral climax as the heavens grow black and "the Storm rushes louder and louder"). As the deluge of rain descends, the thankful people break out into a passionate shout of delight ("Thanks be to God"), heard above the tempest in the orchestra. At first it is a brief expression of gratitude. The voices come to a pause, and Elijah repeats the tribute of praise. Then all join in a surging tumult of harmony, voices and instruments vying with each other in joyful acclamation, until the end is reached and the first part closes.
The second part opens with a brilliant soprano solo ("Hear ye, Israel"). Beginning with a note of warning, and then with trumpet obligato developing into another melody of an impetuous and animated description ("I, I am He that comforteth"). The solo leads to the impressive chorus ("Be not afraid"), in which, after a short pause, the entire force of voices, orchestra, and organ join in the sublime strain, sweeping on in broad, full harmony. There is a pause of the voices for two bars, then they move on in a strong fugue ("Though Thousands languish and fall."). At its close they are merged again in the grand announcement. ("Be not afraid"), delivered with impetuosity, and ending with the same subject in powerful chorale form.
The scene which follows is intensely dramatic. The prophet rebukes Ahab and condemns the Baal worship. Jezebel fiercely accuses Elijah of conspiring against Israel, and the people in sharp, impetuous phrases declare ("He shall perish"), leading to the chorus ("Woe to him!"). After a few bars for the instruments, Obadiah, in recitative, counsels him to fly to the wilderness.
In the next scene we behold Elijah alone, and in feeble but infinitely tender plaint ("it is enough"), the prophet prays for death. A few bars of tenor recitative tell us that, wearied out, he has fallen asleep ("See, now he sleepeth beneath a Juniper-tree in the Wilderness, and there the Angels of the Lord encamp round about all them that fear Him"). It introduce the trio of the angels ("Lift thine Eyes to the Mountains"), sung without accompaniment -- one of the purest and most delightful of all vocal trios. Chorus ("He watching over Israel") follows, in which the second theme, introduced by the tenors ("Shouldst thou, walking in grief"), is full of tender beauty. At its close the angel awakes Elijah, and once more we hear his pathetic complaint ("O Lord, I have labored in vain; oh, that I now might die!"). In response comes an aria, sung by the angel ("Oh, rest in the Lord"), breathing the very spirit of heavenly peace and consolation -- an aria of almost matchless purity, beauty, and grace. Firmly and with a certain sort of majestic severity follows the chorus ("He that shall endure to the End").
The next scene is one of the most impressive and dramatic in the oratorio. Elijah no longer prays for death; he longs for the divine presence. He hears the voice of the angel ("Arise now, get thee without, stand on the Mount before the Lord; for there His glory will appear and shine on thee. Thy face must be veiled, for He draweth near"). With great and sudden strength the chorus announces ("Behold! God the Lord passed by"). With equal suddenness it drops to a pianissimo, gradually worked up in a crescendo movement, and we hear the winds ("rendering the Mountains around"); but once more in pianissimo it tells us ("the Lord was not in the Tempest"). The earthquake and the fire pass by, each treated in a similar manner; but the Lord was not in those elements. Then, in gentle tones of ineffable sweetness, it declares ("After the Fire there came a still, small Voice,
and in that still, small voice onward came the Lord"); and onward sings the chorus in low, sweet, ravishing tones to the end ("The Seraphim above Him cried one to the other, Holy, holy, holy, is God the Lord!") -- a double chorus of majestic proportions. Once more Elijah goes on his way, no longer dejected, but clothed with "the strength of the Lord." His aria ("For the Mountains shall depart") prepares us for the final climax. In strong accents the chorus announce ("Then did Elijah the Prophet break forth like a Fire; his Words were like burning Torches; he overthrew Kings; he stood on Sinai and heard the Vengeance of the future of Horeb"). Then comes a significant pause. The basses begin ("And when the Lord would take him away"); another brief pause, and the full chorus pictures in vivid color the coming of the fiery chariot and the whirlwind by which he was caught up into heaven. One more tenor aria ("Then, then shall the Righteous shine") and a brief soprano solo introduce the chorus ("Behold my Servant"). A beautiful quartet ("Oh! come, every one that thirsteth") follows, and the massive figure ("And then shall young Light break forth as the Light of the Morning") closes this masterpiece.