Monday, April 7, 2014

Mendelssohn's Elijah

Mendelssohn in 1846
This weekend's Masterworks Concert presents one of the great choral works of the 19th Century by one of the most popular composers in classical music: the oratorio Elijah by Felix Mendelssohn.

Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony joined by the Susquehanna Chorale, the Messiah College Concert Choir and the Messiah College Choral Arts Society, all prepared by Linda Tedford, with soloists Jonathan Beyer, baritone, as Elijah, plus soprano Ilana Davidson, mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, tenor Eric Rieger, and soprano Lynlee Copenhaver.

The performances are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with a pre-concert talk presented by HSO assistant conductor Gregory Woodbridge an hour before each concert.

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First of all, you may be wondering, “what is an oratorio?”

If you're familiar with Handel's Messiah, you'll have an idea what that answer might be, even though (technically) it's not a typical example.

Basically, an oratorio is a large-scale work with soloists, chorus and orchestra similar to an opera – it tells a story, has arias, duets and other various combinations for solo voices, as well as what we call “recitatives” (the equivalent of “spoken dialogue” that is somewhere between speech and full-out melodic song-like arias) along with more work for the chorus than you'd usually find in an opera – but unlike an opera, it is not staged: there are no sets and costumes and the stories they tell are largely sacred (usually biblical) rather than secular (usually mythological) in nature compared to what you might see on stage at the opera house.

Opera essentially originated around 1600 but it was quickly prohibited from performance during the Lenten season (too immoral for that most penitential of times). So composers instead turned to writing and producing non-staged works based on biblical plots which were presented as concerts rather than operas. The subject matter was therefore uplifting and the music more “edifying” even if some people heard this as nothing more than opera-in-sheep's-clothing (so much for the wicked stage).

Handel was not the first composer of oratorios but he is usually the first name we associate with the genre. And while some of the 25 he composed deal with specifically biblical stories like Esther or Judas Maccabeus, others like Messiah are contemplations on biblical themes rather than direct, action-oriented story-telling or, like Semele which deals with the mother of the Greek god Dionysus, have nothing to do with Christianity at all (in fact, Semele was later staged in the opera house).

While Bach's Christmas Oratorio and his Easter Oratorio are really collections of cantatas for the given season, there is also the St. Matthew Passion and we should remember, speaking of “degrees of separation,” that Felix Mendelssohn was 16 when his grandmother gave him a copy of the manuscript for Bach's St. Matthew and which he conducted, in its first performance since Bach's death in 1750, when he was 20 years old in 1829.

When traveling in England as a young man in his 20s, he had the opportunity to hear several choral works by George Frederic Handel and gave the first (then-)modern performances of several of them in Germany, most notably the then-largely-unknown Messiah, Judas Maccabeus and Israel in Egypt.

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This weekend's concert consists of a single work – but be advised, it's in two parts of about an hour each with an intermission in between, not like those ninety-minute Mahler symphonies which the weak-of-bladder fear attending. It will be sung in English and will be accompanied by “super-titles” projecting the text above the stage.

If you are not familiar with the biblical story of Elijah, you can check this link.

To explain how Mendelssohn treats this story in his oratorio, I quote from Richard Rodda's program notes while adding three famous paintings on subjects related to the story:

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The first of Elijah’s two parts is divided into three scenes prefaced by the prophet’s curse of drought sung to the solemn intonations of trombones and winds and a tempestuous Overture in fugal style that depicts the effect of the misfortune on the people of Israel. The Israelites voice their despair in the choruses that follow, while a tenor aria (“If with all your hearts ye truly seek me”) offers the hope of divine comfort.

Louis Hersent
Scene Two opens with Elijah at the brook of Cherith, guarded by a host of angels. At the end of the chorus “For He shall give His angels charge over thee,” an angel commands Elijah to go to Zarepath, where a widow will provide food that God promises will sustain him through the drought. Upon his arrival, the widow tells him that her son is near death. Elijah prays three times over the boy, and he revives. A chorus of praise closes the scene.

(The painting by Louis Hersent (d.1860) - see above - depicts "Elijah rejuvenating the son of the widow of Sarepta.")

Lucas Cranach the Younger (c.1545)

In Scene Three, one of the most gripping episodes in the entire realm of oratorio, Elijah announces the end of the three-year drought, and presents himself to Ahab. He challenges Ahab’s priests of Baal to prove the power of their god. The priests call upon Baal to bring down fire upon a sacrificial animal without success. Elijah’s prayers are answered, and the Israelites are moved to again profess the true faith.

(Lucas Cranach the Younger depicted the challenge of Elijah against the Priests of Baal in the painting - see above - from 1545.)

Elijah orders them to slay the priests. With Israel repentant, Elijah prays once again, this time for an end to the drought. A youth is sent to watch for rain clouds, at first reports nothing, but then sights an approaching storm. The people rejoice (“Thanks be to God! He laveth the thirsty land!”).

Gustave Doré
Part II is looser in dramatic structure than Part I because of Schubring’s frequent insertion into the libretto of pious and rather preachy texts that are extraneous to the story. (For more on Schubring, who was Mendelssohn's advisor on creating the text for the oratorio, see the next post.) The main occurrences are Queen Jezebel’s rousing the people against Elijah and his flight into the desert; the appearance of God to the prophet; the reinvigoration of Elijah’s faith and his mighty acts; and his assumption into heaven in a fiery chariot (depicted in 1865 by Gustave DorĂ© - see right).

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Rather than give a handful of excerpts, I found an excellent recording of Mendelssohn's Elijah with none other than the legendary Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus, sung in English. It is divided into its two parts and the person who posted this on YouTube was kind enough to break down the individual “numbers” (arias, duets, choruses, &c). In the first part, he offers the start-time for each number but did not do so in the second part.

Still, since the diction in the singers' performance is quite good, you should still be able to follow along without needing to rely on the specific text.

In this recording – available on the Telarc label – the soloists are Thomas Hampson, baritone (Elijah), Barbara Bonney , soprano (The Widow), Henriette Schellenberg, soprano (Angel), Florence Quivar, mezzo-soprano (Angel), Marietta Simpson, mezzo-soprano (The Queen), Jerry Hadley, tenor (Obadiah), Richard Clement, tenor (Ahab), Thomas Paul, baritone and Reid Bartelme, boy soprano (The Youth).

Part 1

0:00 Introduction (Elijah) - As God of Israel liveth
0:57 Overture
4:28 Chorus - Help Lord
7:50 Quartet Recit. - The deep affords no water
8:48 Duet with chorus - Zion spreadeth her hands for aid
10:56 Recit (Obadiah) - If with all your hearts
Chorus - Yet doth the Lord see it not
19:00 Recit (Angel) - Elijah! get thee hence (Florence Quivar)
19:55 Double quartet -For He shall give His angels
23:04 Recit (Angel): Now Cherith's brook is dried up (Florence Quivar)
24:22 Air (Bonney): What have I to do with thee - Recit (Elijah, Widow) Give me thy son!

Part 2

Air: Hear ye, Israel! (Barbara Bonney)
Chorus: Be not afraid
Recit (Elijah, Queen) and chorus: The Lord hath exalted thee
Chorus - Woe to him
Recit (Obadiah, Elijah) Man of Godnow let my words be precious
Air (Thomas Hampson): It is enough, O Lord
Recit (Richard Clement) See, now he sleepeth
Trio of Angels (Bonney, Schellenberg,Simpson): Lift thine eyes
Chorus: He, watching over Israel
Recit (Angel, Elijah): Arise, Elijah (Florence Quivar)
Air (Angel): O rest in the Lord (Florence Quivar)
Chorus: He that shall endure to the end
Recit (Elijah, Angel): Night falleth 'round me (Henriette Schellenberg)
Chorus: Behold, God the Lord passed by!
Recit, Quartet & Chorus: Above him stood the seraphim
Chorus: Go, return upon thy way - and recit (Elijah) I go on my way
Arioso (Thomas Hampson): For the mountains shall depart
Chorus: Thus did Elijah the prophet break forth
Air (Jerry Hadley): Then shall the righteous shine forth
Recit: For Godsent his people the prophet Elijah (Barbara Bonney)
Chorus: Thus saith the Lord
Quartet: O come, everyone that thirsteth
Chorus: And then shall your light break forth
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In the next post, you can read more about the biographical background to Mendelssohn's Elijah

Dick Strawser

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For more information about Mendelssohn's biography, check these posts at Dr. Dick's “Mendelssohn's World,” especially this post about “Being German in the early-1800s” when Mendelssohn was growing up, especially the “Biedermeier Age” which is reflected not only in the composer's life and musical style but also in the Victorian Era of 19th Century England which may go far to explain why Mendelssohn was so popular there.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful. Let the name of our Lord be praised