Music with Ease > Classical Music > Concert Guide: Romantic Era > Saint Paul (Mendelssohn)
"Saint Paul," first of Mendelssohns oratorios, was begun in Düsseldorf and finished in Leipzig in the winter of 1835, the composer being then in his twenty-sixth year. Its three principal themes are the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, the conversion of Saint Paul, and the apostles subsequent career. The work was first produced May 22, 1836, on the occasion of the Lower Rhine Festival at Düsseldorf.
After a long and expressive overture for orchestra and organ, the first part opens with a strong and exultant chorus ("Lord! Thou alone art God"). It is massively constructed, and in its middle part runs into a restless, agitated theme ("The Heathen furiously rage"). It closes, however, in the same energetic and jubilant manner which characterizes its opening, and leads directly to a chorale ("To God on high"), set to a famous old German hymn-book tune ("Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr"), which is serenely beautiful in its clearly flowing harmony. The martyrdom of Stephen follows. The basses in vigorous recitative accused him of blasphemy, and the people break out in an angry chorus ("Now this Man ceaseth not to utter blasphemous Words"). At its close Stephen sings a brief, but beautiful solo ("Men, Brethen, and Fathers!"); and as the calm protest dies away, again the full chorus gives vent to a tumultuous shout of indignation ("Take him away"). A note of warning is heard in the fervent soprano solo ("Jerusalem, thou that killest the Prophets"); but it is of no avail. Again the chorus hurls its imprecations more furiously than before ("Stone him to Death"). The tragedy occurs. A few bars of recitative for tenor, full of pathos, tell the sad story, and the follows another beautiful chorale of submission ("To Thee, O Lord, I yield my Spirit"). The lament for Stephen is followed by the chorus ("Happy and blest are they"), which is beautifully melodious in character. Saul now appears, "breathing out threatenings and slaughter" against the Apostles. His first aria ("Consume them all" ) is a bass solo which is fiery in its energy. It is followed by the lovely arioso for alto ("But the Lord is mindful of His own"). Then occurs the conversion. The voice from heaven ("Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?") is represented, as was often done in the passion- music, by the soprano choir, which gives it peculiar significance and makes it stand out in striking contrast with the rest of the work. A forcible orchestral interlude, worked up in a strong crescendo, leads to the vigorous chorus ("Rise up! arise!") in which the powerful orchestral climax adds great strength to the vocal part. It is a vigorously constructed chorus, and is followed by a chorale ("Sleepers, wake! a Voice is calling"), the effect of which is heightened by trumpet notes between the lines. At the close of the imposing harmony the music grows deeper and more serious in character as Saul breathes out his prayer ("O God, have Mercy upon me"); and again, after the message of forgiveness and mercy delivered by Ananias, more joyful and exultant in the bass solo with chorus ("I praise Thee, O Lord, my God"), Saul receives his sight, and straightway begins his ministrations. A grand reflective chorus ("Oh, great is the Depth of the Riches of Wisdom"), strong and jubilant in character, and rising to a powerful climax, closes the first part.
The second part opens with the five-part chorus ("The Nations are now the Lords") -- a clear fugue, stately and dignified in its style, leading, after a tenor and bass duet ("Now all are Ambassadors in the Name of Christ"), to the melodious chorus ("How lovely are the Messengers that preach us the Gospel of Peace!") and the soprano arioso ("I will sing of Thy great Mercies"). After the chorus ("Thus saith the Lord"), and a second tumultuous chorus expressive of rage and scorn ("Is this He who in Jerusalem"), another chorale occurs ("O Thou, the true and only Light"), in which the Church prays for direction. The tenor recitative announcing the departure of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles, followed by the tenor and bass duet ("For so hath the Lord Himself commanded"), leads to the scene of the sacrifice at Lystra, in which the two choruses ("The Gods themselves as Mortals") and ("Oh, be gracious, ye Immortals"), are sensuous and in striking contrast with the seriousness and majestic character of the harmony in the Christian chorus ("But our God abideth in Heaven") which follows. Once more the Jews interfere, in the raging, wrathful chorus ("This is Jehovahs Temple"). In a pathetic tenor aria ("Be thou faithful unto Death") Paul takes a sorrowful leave of his brethren, and in response comes an equally tender chorus ("Far be it from thy Path"). Two stately choruses ("See what Love hath the Father") and ("Now only unto Him") close the work.