Please note that the following is one long post of the individual selections that I did originally for the CCC website. I wasn't doing images to go with the posts at the time and decided that I would just post it as is on this website. So it's pretty long and totally text. But it's interesting--I promise!
I’d have to say that I didn’t realize just what a towering genius Mendelssohn was until I did some background reading for this post, although I had a vague memory of an NPR commentary saying that Mendelssohn’s early works display more maturity and accomplishment than those of Mozart. Heresy! But no. To quote from the website classicfm.com, “Felix Mendelssohn was the most profoundly gifted prodigy-composer of all time.” Yes, Mozart as well as Saint-Saens and Korngold produced skillful compositions during their teens, but Mendelssohn’s output included “full-blown masterpieces of supreme originality.” The German poet Goethe, who heard Mendelssohn perform at the age of 12, said that what he had accomplished “bears the same relation to Mozart of that time that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child.” (Not that we don’t all love Mozart.)
One reason why Mendelssohn’s music doesn’t get the same attention as Mozart’s is that he led a sheltered life as a child instead of being dragged around Europe to perform as Mozart was. Those with contented, well-regulated lives get far less attention than the ones with all the drama. Mendelssohn’s parents were wealthy, so much so that they could afford to hire a private string orchestra to perform his works at the intellectual salons they held. Although at first Mendelssohn’s father didn’t encourage the idea of his having a professional music career, he gave in when he saw his son’s dedication. So apparently no dramatic scenes with Abraham threatening to disinherit Felix if he didn’t become a banker like him. A movie about Mendelssohn’s life probably wouldn’t do very well at the box office, although it does resemble Mozart’s in one important, and tragic, aspect: both men died in their thirties, Mozart at 35 and Mendelssohn at 38.
Why is Mendelssohn’s last name sometimes listed as “Mendelssohn-Bartholdy”?
I remember seeing this version of Mendelssohn’s name on a piano piece I was (very unsuccessfully) working on, and thinking, Is this another Mendelssohn? You’ll see both version of Felix’s last name used. So what gives? It’s a very complicated, and fascinating, story that concerns itself with Jewish culture in Europe and the role of anti-Semitism.
To begin with, Felix’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, came to Berlin in 1743 at the age of 14, even though that city’s society was very hostile to Jews. He managed to become quite prominent in the philosophical and literary world, beating Immanuel Kant in an essay contest sponsored by the Berlin Academy. Frederick the Great even granted him the title of “Protected Jew,” which guaranteed his right to live peacefully in Berlin. Moses is a worthwhile historical figure in his own right and was hailed as the “German Socrates.” He devoted much of his later life to writings that eloquently supported the idea of religious freedom, saying that the state should not seek to control the religion of its citizens.
But even such a respected and beloved figure as Moses Mendelssohn couldn’t wipe out the widespread anti-Semitism in European culture. So Abraham, Moses’ son and Felix’s father, took several steps to distance himself and his family from their Jewish heritage. One of those actions was to adopt the surname “Bartholdy,” an action suggested by Abraham’s brother-in-law. Jakob Salomon, who took the name from a property he had acquired. Abraham urged Felix to drop the Mendelssohn name and just use Bartholdy, but even though Felix was baptized as a Protestant and married a minister’s daughter, he refused to drop his use of Mendelssohn. It’s never possible to know exactly what was going on in the mind and heart of someone from the past (or even someone in the present), but it seems to me that Felix wanted to honor both aspects of his background. Most of the time, his public knew him as Mendelssohn without the Bartholdy, but sometimes both names were listed. And that inconsistency has carried over until today.
His Jewish ancestry came to the fore during Germany’s Nazi regime. Even though Mendelssohn’s music was beloved by the German people as a whole, he just could not be tolerated by the Reichsmusikkammer (“Reich Music Bureau”). He was degenerate. His music could not be performed except for Jewish audiences. The monument built in his honor in Leipzig was removed; the scholarship bearing his name at the Leipzig Conservatory was discontinued. Even hi incidental music to A Midsummer Night’ Dream was banned, a work that had been so popular that Queen Victoria had used the “Wedding March” in her own wedding. Nazi-approved composers were asked to write new music for the play. Guess who obliged? None other than Carl Orff. Can you believe it?
If you’d like more information on the whole Mendelssohn/Jewish/Christian/Nazi story, I would highly recommend that you watch the excellent documentary “Mendelssohn, the Nazis, and Me.” It’s only about an hour long and will give you a real glimpse into this whole story. (And ignore the mean-spirited comment that says it’s one of the most boring docs on youtube. I don’t know what the guy was smokin’!) Here’s the link:
And a small (very small) bonus teaser:
What 1940’s cartoon has the theme from Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” as the motif for one of the characters?
I was so surprised when, probably sometime in my teens, I heard this piece in a concert or on a recording. Why, that’s from the cartoon with the minah bird! I thought. Sure enough, for some reason that tune was felt by someone in charge at Warner Bros. to be symbolic of the rather mysterious creature who appears in the following:
– “Inki and the Minah Bird”
(I will say that as far as I’m concerned this cartoon makes no sense whatsoever. And it’s probably not necessary for me to point out that Inki the African hunter is portrayed in a way that’s pretty typical of the times.) There may be other Merry Melodies cartoons with the minah bird, but this is the one that pops up on youtube. Hey, a true classic is at home anywhere!
And now on to the oratorio itself:
Isn't the beginning of Elijah rather abrupt?
And the answer is, Not any more abrupt than the opening of the actual story in the Bible, I Kings 17:1. Elijah suddenly appears before Ahab, the king of Israel. We are told of him only that he is from an area of Israel called Tishbe, in Gilead. And that's it for background material on him. What has Ahab (and by extension Israel) done to deserve Elijah's message, the dire news that there is going to be a complete drought for the next few years, without even dew? At least part of the answer involves the infamous Jezebel. We are told in the previous chapter that “Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. . . . he also married Jezebel daughter of the king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria” (16:30-32 NIV).
The implication is clear that Jezebel is at least partly to blame for Ahab's idolatry. We'll save a discussion of her character for a later post and just point out here that she's not guilty, as far as we know, of the type of behavior that we usually associate with her name. She has plenty of other problems, but nowhere in Scripture is she accused of sexual immorality. So what was she really like? We'll see.
For now, though, let's take a look at the god Baal whose worship causes Israel so much grief and who is ultimately shown to be powerless. This name was used for a number of pagan deities in the area, usually associated with control over crops and the weather, but the word “baal” simply means “lord.” The fact that Baal was a weather god makes the connection between Ahab's worship of him and Elijah's prophecy of a drought especially telling. In other words, Elijah is saying, “You want to depend on Baal to send you rain? Think again. The Lord, the true God of Israel, is the One who is really in charge, and there won't be any rain until He says so. All those sacrifices you've made to Baal are totally useless.” This theme of a divine judgment that specifically targets the supposed power of a pagan god is seen a number of times in the Bible, with the most extended being the ten plagues of Egypt. If you're up on your Egyptian mythology you can trace a connection between each plague and a specific deity. (For example, the Egyptians worshipped Hapi, the god of the Nile River, and the first plague turned that river, and indeed all of the water in Egypt, into blood.)
After Elijah makes his dramatic announcement to Ahab he needs to escape to someplace safe, so he is told by God to go to a valley called Cherith. He can drink from the brook there, and ravens will bring him “bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening.” (I have fond memories of this story from Sunday School.) Later on, as the drought worsens, that brook dries up and Elijah is sent to seek provision elsewhere. Raises an interesting theological question, doesn't it, that the prophet who foretold the drought also ends up suffering from it? We aren't singing the section of the oratorio that tells the story of where Elijah goes, but he ends up bringing blessing to a widow and her son who live, of all places, in Jezebel's home country of Sidon. If you're interested in finding out what happens with that whole situation, read the rest of I Kings 17.
So the stage is set for the confrontation that will occur on Mount Carmel between Elijah and the priests of Baal.
Why do the priests of Baal get so much air time in Elijah?
They get three, count 'em, three, choruses. Was Mendelssohn enamored of these guys, or what? Well, no. He was actually following the biblical story quite closely in how he structured this section of the oratorio, as they do go on and on for quite awhile.
Let's get the scene straight before going any further. Israel has been suffering a drought for three years, as prophesied by Elijah. Things have gone pretty badly, as the early choruses show, and even King Ahah is struggling to keep his livestock going. (He seems to be more concerned with his horses and mules than he is with his people.) When Elijah comes before him, Ahab calls the prophet “he that troubleth Israel,” making the usual mistake of confusing the messenger with the message. Elijah tells him in no uncertain terms that it is Ahab who has troubled Israel with his idolatry and challenges him and all of Israel (including the priests of Baal “who eat at Jezebel's table”) to come to a face-off testing who is the true God. “The God who by fire shall answer, let him be God,” he says. And so the contest takes place on Mount Carmel. I can't resist quoting Elijah's words in the wonderful old King James Version as he challenges the crowd around the two altars: “How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him” (I Kings 18:21).
The priests of Baal are allowed to go first, and a bull is killed and put on their altar. Now they begin crying out to him, which is what the three choruses portray. How long do their pleas go on? Let's just say that it's a good thing Mendelssohn didn't try to re-create this scene in real time. First they go from morning till noon, then Elijah taunts them, then they begin slashing themselves with swords and spears and go on until the time of the evening sacrifice, 3:00 PM. So we're talking about at least six hours here. (The whole self-mutilation idea is prevalent in a number of ecstatic religions.) “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”
So Elijah decides that it's his turn. He calls the people over to him and his altar, arranges the wood and the bull, and then, just to be sure there's no question of any fakery, has gallons and gallons of water poured over everything, so much so that even the trench around the altar is filled. Now, in contrast to the hours of frantic prayer from Baal's priests, Elijah prays about 60 words. What happens? “The the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench” (I Kings 18:38). There's no question that Elijah's prayer has been answered. The people of Israel fall on their faces and proclaim that “The Lord—he is God!”
Does Elijah get any earthly reward from his performance on Mount Carmel?
You'd think that Elijah would now be sitting pretty, wouldn't you? That Ahab would offer him a cabinet position, at the very least? Well, you'd be wrong. Nothing of the sort happens. Instead, Elijah now faces yet another test of faith: Will the rain come as he prophesied? The three years of drought that he foretold have ended. He's confident enough that he sends Ahab off to get something to eat before the storm hits. Then he climbs back up to the top of Mount Carmel to watch and pray. It's a very human story if you think about it: No one has perfect faith, not even the man who has just called down fire from heaven. So he's sure that God will send the rain . . . but he wants to make sure. He bows in prayer and then keeps sending his servant to look out over the sea (Mt. Carmel is very close to the coast) for rain clouds. It's almost amusing. The book of James in the Christian New Testament says, “Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (James 5:17-18). God answers Elijah's prayers even though he isn't perfect. It's the object of our faith that counts, not the quality of our faith. And so the seventh time the servant reports, “A cloud as small as a man's hand is rising from the sea.” That's it! He sends the servant down to warn Ahab, since otherwise he'll be stuck there. And a nice ending touch: “The power of the Lord came upon Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel,” a distance of about 17 miles.
Note that it apparently doesn't occur to Ahab that it would be good manners to give Elijah a ride. And what does he do as soon as he gets home? He tells his wife Jezebel all about the killing of the priests of Baal, news that does not make her very happy. Let's stop a minute here and ask,
What was Jezebel really like, according to the Bible?
She appears only briefly in Mendelssohn's work, but, as already mentioned, she was instrumental in encouraging the worship of Baal in Israel and so plays a very important part in the story we're singing. And she's a fascinating character in her own right, well worth a little bit of discursive discussion.
The character of Jezebel in the Bible is quite different from her portrayal in extra-biblical sources. To call a woman a “Jezebel” used to be an insult, indicating that she was sexually immoral and focused on her appearance. Nowadays the term has been appropriated by some feminists to mean a strong woman who is conscious of her rights. Who's right?
Well, actually the second group. Jezebel was indeed a strong-minded woman who got her own way a great deal of the time, but she didn't use that powerful personality in positive ways. In addition to her part in promoting Baal worship, she's known for committing judicial murder in the Naboth's vineyard incident. While there's nothing funny about murder, I have to laugh at the picture of Ahab, king of Israel, coming home after Naboth has turned down his offer to buy the vineyard: “He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat” (I Kings 21:4). Jezebel's reponse is to say, “Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I'll get you the vineyard” (5). And so she does, coming up with a scheme to frame Naboth for blasphemy and get him stoned to death. Elijah shows up in this story, too, confronting Ahab at his newly-seized property and prophesying how he and Jezebel will die. And indeed, the only mention of Jezebel's possible vanity about her appearance occurs at the very end of her life, after her husband Ahab has been killed in battle, when she paints her eyes and arranges her hair before looking out of the window at the new king of Israel, Jehu, and giving him a piece of her mind. She doesn't survive this encounter, and the manner of her death fulfills Elijah's gruesome prediction. You can read all about it in II Kings 9:30-37.
Anyway, getting back to our part of the story, Elijah never expresses any fear of Ahab, but Jezebel is a different matter. He runs for his life when Jezebel sends him this message after she hears about the fate of her Baal priests: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” He knows that she means what she says, and rather than fall into her hands he asks God to take his life. “I have had enough, Lord,” he says. What follows is a fascinating scene between Elijah and God, which we'll get to next. For now, we'll leave him sitting under a tree in the desert, praying for death.
Why are we shown Elijah's vulnerabilities in the biblical account?
The picture of Elijah we've just seen isn't a terribly noble image, is it? I believe we're shown this scene because we're supposed to realize that he's a real person, not a superhero.
Another scene showing Elijah's humanity shows up in the context of our selection “Behold, God the Lord.” Mendelssohn doesn't include the interactions between Elijah and God which occur in the biblical account. Elijah has ended up in a cave, and there God speaks to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The prophet answers, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too." The subject heading in one version of this passage says, “Elijah has self-pity.”
How does God deal with him? First, He shows His power with a series of three huge natural events: a mighty wind, an earthquake, and a fire. But God is not “in” any of these events, even though He brings them about. Then He speaks to Elijah in a “still, small voice” or “a gentle whisper.” Here's the part that isn't in our selection and which to me makes the scene so real: “And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave.” So he's almost certainly been cowering in the cave while the three catastrophic events have been happening. But when he hears that soft voice he knows who it is, covers his face in reverence, and goes out to meet God. Can't you just see it?
What does God tell him, after the prophet reiterates his “I, only I am left” speech? Elijah is to “go, return upon thy way” and carry out the tasks God has for him. And he is reassured that he's not, after all, the only prophet left: “But the Lord hath left him seven thousand in Israel knees which have not bowed to Baal.” And indeed Elijah does get going on what God has told him to do. We don't have another instance recorded of his fear and doubt.
And, finally, how does Elijah's life end?
Well, this is sort of a trick question. According to the Bible, he didn't actually die but was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, with horses of fire, in a whirlwind. (The movie title “Chariots of Fire” refers to this event but is more directly drawn from an incident in the life of Elisha in II Kings 6:17. If you have a hard time keeping Elijah and Elisha straight, just remember that “j” comes before “s” in the alphabet, so Elijah comes before Elisha.) Our chorus “Then Did Elijah” describes this climax to the prophet's time on earth. (I can't resist another Elisha reference here: he is a follower of Elijah, and the departure of his master, however dramatic, is for him a great loss. We are told, “Elisha saw it and cried out, 'My father! My father! I see the chariots and charioteers of Israel!' And as they disappeared from sight, Elisha tore his clothes in distress.”)
Mendelssohn doesn't end the oratorio with the fiery chariot. There are still four more sections, each one centered around God's promises to His people. The final words are sung in praise to Him: “Thou fillest heav'n with Thy glory.”