Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Behind the Music with Mendelssohn's "Elijah"

Felix Mendelssohn
This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina will present one of the great choral works in the repertoire, Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio, Elijah. The performances on Saturday (8pm) and Sunday (3pm) at the Forum will feature the Susquehanna Chorale, the Messiah College Concert Choir and Choral Arts Society (prepared by Linda Tedford) with Jonathan Beyer, baritone, as Elijah and soloists Ilana Davidson, Susan Platts, Eric Rieger and Lynlee Copenhaver.

In my previous post, I explained a little of the background and included a complete performance with the legendary Robert Shaw, a recording available on Telarc which includes a star-studded cast of soloists like Thomas Hamspon as Elijah, Barbara Bonney, Jerry Hadley and Florence Quivar.

Stuart Malina's excited about conducting the piece – the first time he's performed it – and he spoke about it at the Pre-Season Preview held in September at the Midtown Scholar:

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Unfortunately, there was a technical glitch with the choral excerpt, there, but you can listen to the whole work in the blog-post I mentioned above.

It's the only work on the program and is about two hours long (with intermission between Parts 1 and 2). It will be sung in English with “super-titles” projecting the text above the stage.

By the way, the first performance (see below) had an orchestra of 125, a chorus of 271, and since it was intended to be a 3-hour concert, the committee planning the event also scheduled – following the oratorio! – two “Italian selections and a Handel chorus.” This, despite Mendelssohn's own protests. Can you say “anticlimax?”

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After the death of George Frederic Handel, the idea of the “oratorio” fell into disfavor. Mozart had prepared an “updated” version of Handel's Messiah for his friend and fellow Mason, the Baron van Swieten, who also played a significant part in Haydn's oratorio, The Creation. Haydn had returned from London in 1794 full of praise for Handel's Israel in Egypt. Swieten translated the English sketch for the libretto into German and, following its success in 1798, crafted a secular meditation for Haydn's next oratorio, The Seasons, in 1801.

If you look at a list of oratorios, you'll notice nothing listed between Beethoven's Christ on the Mount of Olives, premiered two years later, and Mendelssohn's St. Paul in 1836.

Now, Beethoven's only oratorio came about on the heels of his teacher's success. But what influenced Mendelssohn to take on this out-dated genre when no one of note had essentially bothered with it for 34 years?

Mendelssohn as a child
As I mentioned in my earlier post, Mendelssohn received a copy of the manuscript of Bach's then long-forgotten St. Matthew Passion for his 16th birthday, a gift from his grandmother (her sister, by the way, had studied with Bach's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann). When he was 20, Mendelssohn conducted the first public performance of the Passion since Bach's death, usually regarded as the start of the “Bach Revival” when more and more people (not just scholars and composers) became aware of Bach's music: he was already old-fashioned well before his death in 1750. (You can read more about Mendelssohn and Bach, here.)

In 1833, Mendelssohn also gave the first performance in Germany of an oratorio by George Frederic Handel: Israel in Egypt, prepared from a copy he'd found in London on a recent trip.

Mendelssohn at 26
In 1835, when he was 26, he accepted a post as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the town where Johann Sebastian Bach had been the music director, his duties centered on the St. Thomas Church.

The following year, then, Mendelssohn gave the world premiere of his oratorio, St. Paul which he had begun working on in 1832, crafting a text with his childhood friend, Julius Schubring, now Rector of St. George's Church, Dessau, about 40 miles north of Leipzig, though actual composition on the work didn't start until 1834.

In style, the mixture of solos and choruses with interpolated chorales easily brings to mind more the influence of Bach. It would go on to become a very popular work, receiving its English premiere in an English translation by Mendelssohn's friend Carl Klingemann in 1836 and its American premiere in Boston the following year! It was frequently performed during his lifetime but would quickly become overshadowed by Elijah and the general popularity of other works like Handel's Messiah.

If nothing else, the success of St. Paul got Mendelssohn's creative juices flowing again, looking around for another possible subject. He wrote to Schubring in August, 1836, “If you would only give all the care and thought you now bestow upon St. Paul to an Elijah, or a St. Peter, or even an Og of Bashan!”

Mendelssohn began corresponding with Klingemann for almost a year, looking around for a suitable new oratorio (leaving out the possibility of Og), suggesting he send him a new text as his wedding present, perhaps one based on the story of Elijah (“his going up to heaven in the end, would be a most beautiful subject”)

After conducting St. Paul at the Birmingham Festival in 1837 in Klingemann's translation, Mendelssohn stayed in London where they spent two mornings outlining a possible oratorio based on the story of Elijah.

Then he decided to turn to Julius Schubring again, and they began work on Elijah's libretto in 1838 but Mendelssohn went nowhere with it. In 1840, Schubring asked if he's put Elijah aside. Later that year, Mendelssohn writes he has “given up composing oratorios.”

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Basically, Mendelssohn's Elijah begins with England, Handel aside.

His first visit to Britain had been in 1829 and resulted in two musical postcards: the famous Hebrides Overture, a.k.a. Fingal's Cave and what eventually became his Symphony No. 3, the Scottish Symphony (the Symphony No. 3) which he didn't actually put the finishing touches on until 1842 and wished to dedicate to Queen Victoria.

Mendelssohn & The Royals
She and her husband, Prince Albert, were big fans of Mendelssohn's music. Once, the Royal Couple invited the composer to Buckingham Palace – curiously, not including his wife, Cécile – where, after the Queen sang for him, he in turn improvised on two themes she gave him as a challenge: “Rule Britannia,” for obvious reasons, and the “Austrian Hymn.” The Queen's own journal entry describes how wonderfully he worked out these different themes, at one point playing the Austrian Hymn in the right hand and “Rule Britannia” in the left. “Poor Mendelssohn,” the Queen wrote, “was quite exhausted when he had done playing.”

At another visit three weeks later, prior to Mendelssohn's return to Germany, Prince Albert prevailed upon his wife to sing for their guest, first asking the parrot be removed from the room “since he screams louder than I can sing,” she explained. The first song she chose was actually one written by Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny, which he confessed to her, much to both their amusement.

(It had been published under his name because it was considered unseemly for a woman to appear in print, much less compose: it had nothing to do with plagiarizing and Mendelssohn had plenty of his own songs to go around. But he delighted in writing this little incident to his family – both to congratulate his sister as to tweak his father that she actually was a good enough composer to win praise from a queen.)

Musical visits with the Royals occurred during his next visit to London, in 1844, which this time included some of his Songs Without Words especially arranged as four-hand duets so he could play them with the Queen.

It was during this visit Mendelssohn's performances put the Royal Philharmonic Society in the black (their 1844 surplus was twice their 1842 deficit). Among his concerts was the first appearance of a 13-year-old violinist name Joseph Joachim who was playing some long-forgotten concerto by Beethoven, despite the society's “no-prodigy” rule.

(That makes Three Degrees of Separation between our April and March concerts: Mendelssohn conducted Joachim's London debut in 1844 – Joachim heard 4-year-old pianist Arthur Rubinstein play for him in 1891 – Rubinstein had a student in the 1960s named Ann Schein.)

It was also the season he attempted to introduce London to the wonders of Schubert's “Great” C Major Symphony. The orchestra didn't like it and rebelled, so Mendelssohn set it aside but also refused to conduct his new overture – Ruy Blas – that was also to be a London premiere.

Handel Performance, London, 1859
Meanwhile, he was also asked to prepare an edition of Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt for the English Handel Society. Apparently they expected him to “Mendelssohnize” it (as Mozart had up-dated Messiah for Vienna, a common occurrence when performing such “old” repertoire) and were disappointed he had instead gone back to the original sketches and earliest editions from 1739 to create something much closer to the composer's initial intentions. There were some heated arguments when people in the society strongly suggested he should at least add trombones!

Then, he received a request from the Birmingham Festival, where he had previously conducted St. Paul.

At a meeting of the Birmingham Festival Committee, held June 11, 1845, the following resolution was carried, apparently unanimously: "That it appears to this Committee desirable that the services of Dr. Mendelssohn be obtained to act as Conductor at the next Festival; and that he be requested to consider whether he can provide a new oratorio, or other music, for the occasion."

Initially, he turned it down because of his schedule but then he compared the freedom and flexibility he would have there to the political chicanery going on in Prussia where he was working at the time. He was writing incidental music for the King's theater – this time including plays by Sophocles and Racine (Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream had been written in 1843) – and trying to organize a music school there as he had done a few years earlier in Leipzig.

But there was so much intriguing against him in the Prussian court (no doubt because of his Jewish heritage), he decided to accept Birmingham's offer after all, and in December 1845, he began another lengthy correspondence with Schubring so that, by May the following year, they had gone so far in working out the details, Mendelssohn was asking him if Elisha, Elijah's apprentice prophet, “could sing soprano” since he seemed to be a youth but is mentioned in one place as having a bald head.

Schubring mentions that nowhere is Elisha mentioned as a boy (one who “plows a field with twelve oxen” is no child) but then, he points out, Mendelssohn had already set the words of Christ for a chorus.

Mendelssohn's Study, Leipzig
Having completed his commitment to the Prussian production of Oedipus at Colonus, he finally began work on Elijah in mid-October.

About a week later, an English contralto, Charlotte Dolby, making her debut with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, was having dinner "at Dr. Härtel's, and [we] were all seated at the table. The guests included Dr. and Madame Schumann [Robert & Clara]; but Mendelssohn, who was also invited, came late. A vacant place had been left for him by my side. He arrived after the soup had been served, and excused himself by saying he had been very busy with his oratorio; and then turning to me he said, 'I have sketched the bass part, and now for the contralto.' 'Oh!' I exclaimed, 'do tell me what that will be like, because I am specially interested in that part.' 'Never fear,' he answered, 'it will suit you very well, for it is a true woman's part—half an angel, half a devil.' I did not know whether to take that as a compliment, but we had a good laugh over it."

Not long after this, Jenny Lind (the “Swedish Nightingale”) also appeared in Leipzig and Mendelssohn was much impressed by her voice, requesting that the Birmingham committee engage her as his soprano soloist for next summer's Elijah. The beauty and quality of her F-sharp (top line of the treble staff) was of special attraction to Mendelssohn and so he wrote the opening aria of Part 2, “Hear ye, Israel,” for her in B Minor and Major so as to make frequent use of that particular pitch.

Unfortunately, she was already committed to other performances during that time and had to decline, much to Mendelssohn's disappointment.

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Work on the oratorio went slowly. Even in April, four months before the premiere, he was suggesting the possibility of substituting the music he'd composed for the Prussian king's production of Racine's Athalia (known today primarily for its famous “War March of the Priests”). He had not been able to find a “first-rate baritone” for the part of Elijah, and he was sometimes “confused” since he found it necessary to compose certain sections of the text as it struck him, not in continuous order.

But in late May, he sent the completed First Part to England with a promise that, "God willing," the Second should follow in July. The premiere was set for August. He sent instructions to William Bartholemew who was making the English translation of the German text, suggesting he work with his London-based friend Klingemann “who understands both languages thoroughly, and who understands my music better than both languages.” By the way, this lengthy correspondence with Birmingham was carried out entirely in English, so the composer was also well acquainted with both languages. Later, there would be many questions back and forth about the suitability of this word for this musical phrase and so on, right up to the performance.

The summer had been particularly hot – Mendelssohn complained he was “living the life of a marmot.” He also had three other festivals to conduct before leaving for England (a most un-marmot-like schedule).

There was also a terse letter in which he requested the committee reconsider hiring the London orchestra who had refused to play Schubert's “Great” C Major. “There is nothing I hate more,” he wrote, “than the reviving of bygone disputes; it is bad enough that they should have occurred. This one of the Philharmonic is, as far as I am concerned, dead and buried, and must on no account have any influence on the selection made for the Birmingham Festival. If men are to be rejected because they are incompetent, that is not my business and I have nothing to say in the matter; but if it is because 'they made themselves unpleasant when I was there,' I consider that an injustice, against which I protest.”

There was also some concern about the alto aria in Part 2, “O Rest in the Lord.” It sounded too similar to the popular English ballad, “Auld Robin Gray,” and Mendelssohn wanted it removed from the performance. The translator protested, suggested changing a note or two to minimize the familiarity but not spoil its melody or the effect it has within the oratorio.

Here is Kathleen Ferrier, the great British alto, singing “O Rest in the Lord,” recorded in 1946:
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When Mendelssohn arrived in London for his first rehearsals with the orchestra, chorus and soloists – a week before the Birmingham premiere – the fate of “O Rest in the Lord” (No. 31) was still in doubt but he'd brought a new arioso for Elijah, No. 37 – “For the mountains shall depart.”

Curiously, No. 31 has gone on to become one of the glories of the oratorio. You'll notice in many performances today (including ours), No. 37 has been eliminated.

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The first rehearsal in Birmingham was described in the local paper:

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Mendelssohn was received by the performers with great enthusiasm, renewed again and again, as his lithe and petit figure bent in acknowledgment of these spontaneous and gratifying tributes to his genius, personal affability, and kindness.... His manner, both in the orchestra and in private, is exceedingly pleasing. His smile is winning, and occasionally, when addressing a friendly correction to the band or choir, full of comic expression. He talks German with great volubility and animation, and speaks English remarkably well. He possesses a remarkable power over the performers, moulding them to his will, and though rigidly strict in exacting the nicest precision, he does it in a manner irresistible—actually laughing them into perfection. Some of his remarks are exceedingly humorous. In the Overture to the "Midsummer Night's Dream" [also to be played at the Festival], the gradations of sound were not well preserved; a rattle of his bâton on the music-stand brings the band to a dead halt. "Gentlemen," says Mendelssohn, "that won't do. All fortissimo, all pianissimo, no piano! A little piano between, if you please. Must have piano, gentlemen; when you come to fortissimo, do as you like."
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Unfortunately, Ignaz Moscheles, the pianist and composer who was also a close friend of Mendelssohn's and who was the “conductor-in-chief” of the entire festival, fell ill and Mendelssohn had to take over his duties as well.

Joesph Staudigl, the 1st Elijah
One concert, however, was canceled and replaced by an extra rehearsal for Elijah. He and Mrs. Moscheles stayed up till 1am working on the translation with Bartholemew.

Incidentally, there were 398 performers hired for Elijah: the orchestra (or “band” as its constantly referred to in the correspondence) consisted of 125 players – 93 strings, double wood-wind and the usual brass (including an ophicleide, a now obsolete instrument replaced by the tuba).

The chorus, including a contingent of 62 from London, totaled 271: 79 sopranos; 60 altos (all male voices, by the way, "bearded altos," as Mendelssohn called them); 60 tenors; and 72 basses.

In addition, there were 10 soloists: the principal quartet and six subsidiary, incidental roles. And an organist.

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Birmingham Town Hall
It hardly needs to be said, the premiere was a success.

The concert began at 11:30am on Wednesday, August 26th, 1846 at the Town Hall. Eight numbers had to be encored – including “He, watching over Israel” and the on-again/ off-again aria, “O Rest in the Lord.”

Writing home to his brother Paul after the performance, Mendelssohn was delighted how much the performers liked it and how well everything went. He also mentioned that the “young English tenor [Charles Lockley] sang the last air [Then shall the righteous shine forth] so beautifully, I was obliged to collect all my energies so as not to be affected, and to continue beating time steadily. As I said, if you had only been there!"

To Jenny Lind, he wrote, “The performance of my 'Elijah' was the best performance that I ever heard of any one of my compositions. There was so much go and swing in the way in which the people played, and sang, and listened. I wish you had been there.”

It's interesting to note that, at the Friday morning concert, which concluded with some Handel arias and the anthem, Zadok the Priest, the musicians realized there was no recitative for the one aria. This was brought to Mendelssohn's attention while he was sitting offstage, enjoying the concert. He sat down and, in a few minutes, wrote a recitative for the tenor along with string quartet and two trumpets. It was immediately copied out, slipped into the musicians' folders during the intermission and performed at sight without anyone knowing it was not, in fact, by Mr. Handel.

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Soon afterward, Mendelssohn stopped in London to visit friends, spend a brief visit to the beach (where he began working on the piano arrangement of the oratorio, presumably for amateur performances) and then returned to Leipzig exhausted, living “a vegetable life,” as he called it, “doing nothing but eat, sleep and take walks.”

Mendelssohn in 1847
Still, by December, he started making revisions to Elijah and began considering a new opera for London, based on Shakespeare's Tempest. Unfortunately, news of this latest project leaked out prematurely as a "done deal," annoying the composer since it was not yet entirely firm in his mind.

London performances of this revised version of Elijah were set for April, 1847 and Mendelssohn returned to London to conduct. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert attended the second one and the Prince Consort wrote this to the composer afterward:

"To the Noble Artist who, surrounded by the Baal-worship of debased art, has been able, by his genius and science, to preserve faithfully, like another Elijah, the worship of true art, and once more to accustom our ear, amid the whirl of empty, frivolous sounds, to the pure tones of sympathetic feeling and legitimate harmony: to the Great Master, who makes us conscious of the unity of his conception, through the whole maze of his creation, from the soft whispering to the mighty raging of the elements.
Inscribed in grateful remembrance by
Buckingham Palace, April 24, 1847."

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It would be nice if we could end this story happily, but history, alas, is not always kind to us, despite our best intentions and fonder hopes.

Following the protracted business of arranging for Elijah's publication in England, Mendelssohn was on his way home, once more exhausted and detained at a border-crossing after being mistaken for a Dr. Mendelssohn who was a political fugitive (the 19th Century equivalent of a “terrorist watch list”) wasting hours before he could prove his identity.

Fanny Mendelssohn
He had been home in Leipzig only a couple of days when news reached him from Berlin: his beloved sister Fanny was dead!

She's had a stroke a few days before – in the midst of rehearsing one of Felix's compositions for an at-home concert that Sunday when her hands fell from the keyboard and she had to be carried into the next room. She never regained consciousness and died at 11pm that night. She was 41.

Felix and Fanny had been so close, not only growing up. Society at the time was not kind to talented women and Fanny was as brilliant a pianist as Felix was (if not better) and a fine composer in her own right who, because of her gender, was unable to have her music performed in public much less published. She had no better champion than her brother whose fame carried him across Europe and his music around the world.

After Felix received the news of her death, he collapsed and remained “insensible for some time.” When he came to, he could not stop crying. Even though he seemed to recuperate, the shock changed him. They met his brother Paul and Fanny's husband, Wilhelm Hensel, but the time together was uncomfortable, reminding him of who wasn't there.

So Cècile took him to Switzerland. A friend visiting him there commented about how gray he looked, how he had aged. One day, he couldn't stand the idea of playing the piano; the next day, he thought he might write a new piano concerto. He sketched a good deal (like this water-color of Lucerne, see left) and eventually began to compose a string quartet. It is very dramatic and uncharacteristically emotional: he called it his “Requiem for Fanny.”

He went back to work, getting ready for the Berlin performance of Elijah but when he entered the family house and saw the room where Fanny had died – and his score still sitting on the piano's music-rack – he broke down again and decided he could not conduct, so the performance was canceled. He would probably cancel the Vienna performance, too.

He submitted his resignation to the Gewandhaus but returned to get ready for the Conservatory's new year but in early October, he was ill again, though for no apparent reason. Later in the month, he had great spasms of pain – his symptoms that could have indicated a series of strokes except doctors then didn't understand them. A few days later, on November 4th, he died around 9:30 that night at the age of 38.

He never finished his intended revisions for Elijah and when the time came, Jenny Lind was unable to sing its Vienna performance, this time because she was so overcome from the news of its composer's death.

She did, however, sing a memorial performance of it in London in 1848, a gala raising money for the Mendelssohn Scholarship Fund she and other friends of the composer had established in his honor.

The money was allowed to accumulate in the bank until 1856 when the first scholarship was given to a promising young composer named Arthur Sullivan. He would go to Leipzig and study at Mendelssohn's school. He composed a suite of incidental music for The Tempest as his graduation piece, followed by a symphony, concertos, overtures, operas and choral works including hymns like “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and songs like “The Lost Chord.”

But in 1870, he met a fellow named William S. Gilbert which changed his career considerably and who can blame him for becoming half of one of the most successful teams in music history?

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Elijah went on to become one of the most frequently performed choral works from the 19th Century, especially popular with amateur choral societies as it is with professional choirs and orchestras still today.

It is not without its detractors – and there's a whole lot of controversy about Mendelssohn I haven't even touched on which would more than double the length of this post and still not cover (or explain) it – but that's not the point.

I know Stuart Malina is looking forward to these performances – it's the first time he's conducted it – and there will be not only our anticipation of hearing the work, but his own excitement of coming face-to-face with it.

So I hope you'll be able to join us for one of these performances – Friday night at 8:00 at the new High Center of Messiah College, or the usual weekend concerts at the Forum on Saturday at 8pm or Sunday at 3pm.

Dick Strawser

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