Jump to page content
Skip Jump to page content

Felix Mendelssohn

The composer was born on February 3, 1809 in Hamburg and died on November 4, 1847 in Leipzig. On June 11, 1845 an English music society, the Committee of the Birmingham Music Festival, sent a special invitation to Mendelssohn. They asked him to conduct all the concerts in their festival of 1846 and to "provide a new oratorio or other music for the occasion." Mendelssohn declined to conduct all the festival concerts and then added that "since some time ago I have began an oratorio. I hope I shall be able to have its first performance at your festival." He had collected the musical material for Elijah some years before but because of his various activities (conducting, establishing a music conservatory in Leipzig, composing and touring) the oratorio was not completed, awaiting greater leisure time or some special stimulus. The English invitation was the spur Mendelssohn needed. Immersed though he was in other work, he plunged into Elijah with vigor. By May 1846 the entire first part and a good portion of the second wac completed and sent to England. Victorian England was rather religious and accepted Elijah with enthusiasm when it was first performed under the baton of its composer on August 26, 1846 in the Birmingham Town hall. The reception was amazing and the composer wrote that "not one of my works has enjoyed such a wonderful performance or received with such enthusiasm before."

Felix's parents, Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn, considered their cultural life a first priority. Felix was born into a wealthy Jewish family which also had a high social status and thus enabled him to develop his musical talents. Later his father added the name Bartholdy to distinguish themselves from the other Mendelssohns who stayed loyal to their Jewishness.

Elijah, the prophet of the Israelites, spoke to Mendelssohn in German. This was Mendelssohn's mother tongue and this was the language in which studied the Bible and read it. But the audience that heard the oratorio Elijah in its premiere did not talk or understand German. And so for the Birmingham audience the oratorio was performed in English, the same biblical text albeit in a language obviously alien to Mendelssohn who was conducting on the occasion. Ever since it is customary to perform and record Elijah in either English or German, depending on the place of performance. It was even performed in Israel once in Hebrew, the original language of the libretto and maybe the most right way to perform a work based on a totally biblical text. However what kind of music does Elijah sing? Obviously this is not Jewish music. As a matter of fact Elijah sings music which is quite similar to that performed by the protagonist of Mendelssohn's other, and Christian, oratorio Paulus. Elijah is an oratorio about Jewish people. Paulus is a very Christian oratorio yet the music of these two works is very similar. No one can suggest by hearing the two works that one is Jewish and the other is not.

In 1829 Mendelssohn fulfilled his greatest ambition: to revive the music of Johann Sebastian Bach which had been underestimated and almost completely forgotten after Bach's death in 1750. Using his own copy of the St. Matthew Passion Mendelssohn performed it for the first time in Berlin, giving the work its sort of second premiere. No doubt, this concert began the tradition of performing Bach's music and was the first step in recognizing Bach as one of the greatest composers of all time.

Jump to page content